Paper And Paste

aerial photo
Between Greenville and Piqua, Ohio.

Our fall­back is to think of the surveyor’s view as being the cor­rect one; that the Jef­fer­son­ian grid of the Mid­west land­scape is its sin­gle deter­min­ing fact. To make such an image, you need flat­ness; at enough of a remove, the glaciat­ed plain, spread over with bison dung, lime dust, and ground bluestem, becomes a ges­soed canvas.

But, giv­en a win­dow seat, you do not see a neat grid as you fly over the results. Rather, the grid always seem to slip away as you try to fol­low the rule. As it tries to repro­duce itself, the grid finds errors in the plane it sup­pos­es; it hits an out­crop­ping, or a stream bed, or a seam of coal. Worse, the ide­al plane can­not be rec­on­ciled with the dent­ed sphere of the earth, and keeps hav­ing to be reset, mak­ing for an irri­tat­ing series of forced turns for the dri­vers inside it. Worst of all: old traces thought to be ban­ished, flat­tened mounds or filled sink­holes, keep leach­ing through the pat­tern like drops of cof­fee on a desk, wicked into a letter. 

cox painting
John Rogers Cox, CLOUD TRAILS.

Hav­ing been made from above, from afar, hav­ing been made imper­fect­ly, it becomes uncan­ny to actu­al­ly inhab­it such a place first­hand. The view switch­es back and forth between the wave of grass and the par­ti­cles of dis­tinct stalks, the big fact of nor­mal­cy and the ten thou­sand imper­fect iter­a­tions of it. There is some of the same elu­sive reg­u­lar­i­ty in per­spec­tive: the wheat shocks on what you take to be a square field, bounc­ing light­ly toward the hori­zon. But oth­er rep­e­ti­tions play out dif­fer­ent­ly, to be held in your mem­o­ry and not in any sin­gle view. The adver­tise­ments for fairs and tobac­co on Cox’s barn would have recurred along the road, in the wake of a bill­stick­er; let these posters stand in for the end­less truck­ing-in of goods to the colony, raft­ed up from New Orleans or over from Philadel­phia. The relay of hatch­ets and drainage tiles makes the land­scape, but in a fugi­tive way; the way of a train or a truck skat­ing now and then over the sur­face of the field, of a wire fence for­got­ten in a grow­ing hedgerow.

These rep­e­ti­tions on the ground face a more elu­sive rep­e­ti­tion in the air, play­ing out an almanac day by day, shuf­fled in a way that is always tempt­ing­ly close to being fig­ured out. 

wood wallpaper
Grant Wood, THE RIDE OF PAUL REVERE wallpaper.

There’s no point in dwelling on what is bor­ing about being here; you may as well dwell on what is hard­er to com­mu­ni­cate in an image. One of the best images I know of the Mid­west is not even sup­posed to show it, though I think Grant Wood would be flat­tered to hear that he could not help but paint­ing Iowa even when he was paint­ing some­thing else. Here, he isn’t even paint­ing; this is wall­pa­per, pro­duced after his death after the pat­tern of his Mid­night Ride of Paul Revere. The stalk of the road is stretched into links around the steeple posts; Sears hous­es are sprin­kled here and there among trees carved of wood; the bluffs are cut sharply enough to sug­gest ero­sion. The woven land­scape of one thing after anoth­er is only giv­en life in the moment by an alarm: intrud­ers, intruders.

burchfield painting

I guess what I am see­ing in the Wood is that rep­e­ti­tion is fat­ed to run into errors; his wall­pa­per would be mis­print­ed, hung out of phase, soaked through by a leak. In the work of a wall­pa­per mas­ter, Charles Burch­field, we can see instances of a pat­tern – bram­ble twigs, cot­ton­wood trunks – laid on top of each oth­er, part of an inde­ter­mi­nate weave. The val­ue in Burch­field is not only in mag­ni­fy­ing the inher­ent col­or of the drab – the glimpse of the blue­bird – but in dwelling on the tan­gle, the aspect of the drawn land­scape that wants to go undrawn, the way that flat­ness will acquire relief despite itself.

(May 2022)