Rebecca Farr’s Sweet Broken Now
Rebecca Farr’s recent solo show at Klowden-Mann was a strong force to be reckoned with--both in terms of the physical presence of her paintings and in the contending contemplation her subject demanded.
With heavy paint on blotted and torn, layered paper, Farr collages print photos from 1970s and 80s coffee table books as her source material. She layers those with paper and heavy paint on wood panel, creating works that feel dense and heavy, yet very exciting and current.
Farr paints photos into vague suggestions of landscape paintings, as if her subjects inhabit a ghost world or ethereal dream. In “Sweet Broken Now,” Farr’s third solo show at Klowden-Mann, Farr made Manifest Destiny her subject of inquiry and aimed to capture the complex history arising from the ideology and religious fervor that justified white westward expansion during the early 1900s. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Although coming from a more formal oil painting practice of detailed landscape paintings, Farr avoided these traditional conventions in this show because, as gallerist Deb Klowden told me, Farr thought that it felt too static to simply paint her chosen subject as a landscape. This prompted her to start incorporating imagery and a deconstruction of an established archive of photos. I liked this turn in her process, because I had contemplated how one would capture the term, history, and complexity of Manifest Destiny itself when it was already painted historically through political (and propagandistic) landscape paintings and portraits. And, yet, how does one visually capture the history of a term that is a whitewashed violent ideology and justification? (See Gap’s 2012 “Manifest Destiny” t-shirt they released and the public outcry that arose from their playful invocation of genocide and violence).
Rebecca Farr | Tilth 1, 2014, Mixed media on wood panel, 48 x 72”. Courtesy of Klowden-Mann.
Technically, I loved Farr’s approach of deconstructing imagery from coffee table books so that she was appropriating photos in order to address and question a much larger cultural, physical, and violent appropriation. Aesthetically, I loved the results as well. Tilth 1 and Tilth 2 were both favorites of mine, comprised of large, sweeping white and blue spaces. White voids and cloud-like expanses fill the frame, with a border of painted flowers at the top. And yet part of the complexity of Farr’s work is that it constantly challenges the act of seeing because what looked like painted flowers at first were actually photos of flowers pasted onto the panel’s surface and then painted into and onto the panel itself. In this way, viewing the show is a constant trick on the eye and mind. Physically, her works are so tactile that their surface is seductively mesmerizing. Moments when the paint felt sculptural as in Outdistance were also my favorites.
My only hesitancy in enjoying the richness of these works when I first viewed them stemmed from my more critical, academic musings, wondering how and to what extent Farr wanted to complicate or question the notions of Manifest Destiny. But the complexity with which her work challenges and inspires viewers to question and reconsider historical narrative, the very act of cultural memory-making and storytelling, the cost of religious fervor or extremism, and the perverse justification of destiny for genocide buried my hesitations immediately.
There were a series of smaller and darker paintings alluding to Farr’s “end of time” theme she addressed in her show. These are smaller images with ominous scenes like one with piles of money and dimly-lit rooms. End of Time 4 and Light, Dark, Savage, Saved 5 and 6 make up a dark, foreboding trio of paintings that collectively felt suggestive of a Cormac MCcarthy-esque wasteland.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, her exploration of the term and history of Manifest Destiny became a study of American memory and history-writing -- in my mind, at least. In The Chosen Few 3, the collaged portion at the bottom features an archive of books, resembling a massive encyclopedia collection with spines showing dates ranging from 1941-88. The image becomes a blur of Americana and archival lore imagined in and suggested with those volumes.
Another painting, End of Time 3, depicts something that looks like memorial flowers and a candlelight vigil, causing me to think about how we remember, memorialize, and monumentalize. And in this way, Farr releases and unleashes a virtual door in our minds. I started seeing things in the painting and exploring those thoughts.
I also love the larger Tilage which includes deconstructed historical maps whose faint bluish-black ink recalls dittos (read: pre-Xerox handouts) from my elementary school. These various maps document such topics as the Expansion of Airlines from 1930-1960, World War II, The Korean War, The Reconquest of Europe from WWII, and State Claims to Western Lands. The painting’s features converge in mountain-like shapes, with a blurry explosion and suggestion of a female figure in the bottom foreground. The act of mapping itself stakes a claim to a land and a people, while also claiming power and ownership over them, as I have suggested elsewhere before. Farr’s incorporation of maps then re-appropriates, rewrites, and questions lines of history and property that have already been drawn.
I love seeing and tracing the layers and paint in Farr’s works as well. In some, I can see outlines of cutout figures under layers of paint faintly showing through -- again revealing the hand of the artist, while also referencing the art of storytelling and the memories we weave, rescind, and hide under and in the backdrops of our lives and histories. These moments feel like Farr is revealing a mystery to study, embedded deeply within her works.
In Farr’s words, her show “is about the far-reaching imprint of history on the present moment’” -- and this is the heart of the complex issue she covers in “Sweet Broken Now.” Her paintings and works challenge viewers to consider not just religious fervor, but also the way it intersects with the political ideology of a nation -- both in the past and present. While wandering through the gallery, I found myself contemplating such questions: What does it mean to live in the US with this contentious history of violent dispossession of native land, the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and ultimately genocide, while often barely acknowledging it in the mainstream historical narrative? What does that mean to Americans now -- both as victims of this violence and sufferers of displacement and, conversely, as great pretenders of history who believe in watering down white American narratives with terms like “Manifest Destiny” and “Westward Expansion” to exalt and justify the white settler nation that expanded and moved west by any means necessary?
National Congress of American Indians | Proud to Be, 2014.
I would argue that it is no coincidence that Farr’s show opened now, in the present moment with the Change the Mascot movement growing in popularity and power and with works like the moving and forceful “Proud to Be” commercial made by the National Congress of American Indians to challenge the Washington team name. These humanize and offer an alternative history that the narrative of Manifest Destiny and great Westward Expansion do not.
The gallery’s press release notes that “Farr asks us to look simultaneously inward and outward to recognize on both subtle and articulated levels the way in which we are engaging in the mythic imprint of our inherited lineage.” Here, the history that Farr alludes to is one of mythical proportions because the very concept and idea of Westward Expansion is founded upon the myth of Manifest Destiny itself. It is the myth of justification of expanding into new, “unoccupied” land; it is the myth of religious fervor that claimed religious righteousness for white expansion; and it is the myth of the dying and vanishing American Indian populated and promulgated by such artists as James Fraser in End of the Trail, or Frederic Remington’s vast array of imagined Indian battles cast in paint and bronze, or Edward Curtis’ anthropological photographic portraits; or in movies like The Last of the Mohicans and Dances with Wolves. (See Julie Schimmel’s chapter “Inventing the ‘Indian’” in Viewpoints for a wonderful lesson on this history.)
Farr challenges us to move beyond mytho-narrative to (re)consider more real and relevant historical facts. And for the richness both in beauty and mind, I am deeply thankful.
Rebecca Farr’s recent show ran from September 13 - October 18th. Klowden-Mann made a limited edition of oversize catalogs for “Sweet Broken Now,” and they still have a few left. David Lloyd’s show of new paintings is open now through January 10th at the gallery.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.