KERA guest commentator Patricia Mora is a writer living in Dallas who has studied in the U.S. and abroad. During her career, she’s written about art and architecture in a variety of media. She earned a Master’s degree in Humanities and has studied Comparative Religion under Harvard professor Diana Eck. This is the next installment in her series on overlooked masterpieces in local collections. In January, she discussed Barbara Hepworth’s Squares with Two Circles at the Nasher Sculpture Center.
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Charles Sheeler’s painting Conversation — Sky and Earth is a new acquisition of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. It shows a bright blue sky rimmed below by heaping, reddish rubble and the white concrete of Hoover Dam. Rising in the foreground you’ll see angled electrical scaffolding and wires dividing the sky into severe, geometric shapes. The piece is so precisely rendered that brushstrokes are nearly invisible. In fact, one could easily mistake Sheeler’s painting for a photograph.
Many people would resort to the historical context of this painting. They would remind us that Hoover Dam was regarded as a great feat that would fuel, among other things, the city of Las Vegas. From that they would construe that the artist is celebrating an auspicious moment in which science triumphed over nature. But that wouldn’t be art; it would be a presumed truth and a platitude. Those are the very things that reduce art into something thoroughly manageable via a particular person’s psyche. I suggest that this painting — and art generally — is always more complex than any of our constructs. Art will always transcend any “-ism,” any theory or system. One of the only things in our tradition large enough to give us an understanding of art is mythology. And by myth, I don’t mean quaint fairy tales told to children. I refer to the greatest and deepest of stories that serve as allies in discovering truth at its most basic and, in some ways, its most simplistic form.
In this painting, the operative myth is Prometheus. As you’ll recall, Prometheus is the Greek god who rebelled against the divine order to deliver fire to mankind. And, just as many people view Prometheus as the precursor to Christ, some people will view this engineering phenomenon as a bit of technological salvation. The strident electric poles and wires traversing that cerulean sky suggests there’s something inherently stellar about their very existence. They rise far above the terrain. The “science,” so to speak, is so imposing that it wins our sight, our vision.
On the other hand, others will see it as an assault on the landscape, an addendum that is unwelcome and, ultimately, something for which we’re currently paying an all-too-high price in our “green” world. Like Prometheus, who got his just desserts for his rebellious act, we’re also paying for our planetary rapaciousness. Clearly, this is serious business. And while the Promethean story is a myth, a supreme fiction, I can think of nothing else that offers such deep ingress into what’s really at stake in this painting. Why? Because myth is the only thing that can simultaneously hold both points of view in perfect balance.
What makes Conversation — Sky and Earth a truly great painting is that we don’t know precisely what the artist thought about any of these questions. The painting has no agenda and it offers no list of rules. It transcends ecological precepts and simply puts forth a glorious image that envelops the viewer. But because images educate, we’re wiser — and able to pose deeper and deeper questions.