SL: I think the Park Paintings are some of the best work you've done.
I've never thought of you as an artist involved with landscape as much as I thought your work was about bearing witness to an experience of the LAND. It may be a difference without a distinction, but in your work I always got a sense of witness in your physical presence in the landscape. Unlike someone like Rackstraw Downes who I think tries to erase his presence, or April Gornik, asserts her presence in elaborate constructions of imagined spaces, your paintings make or convey an intensely personal sense of place in the landscape. The distance between you and the landscape is collapsed even though you paint a tremendous sense of distance in a picture, almost like a shot in a Kubrick film. Because this collapse is visual and metaphorical, it forces a new understanding of landscape, nature, and the natural. It also affirms that in 2013, the city park is as close to Arcadia as we are going to get. So I see your paintings as profoundly social documents that talk about (dis)engagements in public space. Which leads me to my question:
How do distance, collapse, and the position of the artist-as-witness in the Park Paintings complicate historical and contemporary ideas about open space?
FM: Thank you Steve for such a thoughtful question.
The first point I want to make is that, if we exclude the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands from which I made my New Mexico paintings, there are two basic types of public open space in the United States. One is the wilderness park-that reserve space where we take only photographs and leave only footprints. It has captured our collective imagination; it exists as an idea that frames specific, physical places. It is also, in many respects, an artifact of the popular enjoyment of landscape painting. The other is the city park, the open space intended for our use. Whether it is one of (Frederick Law) Olmsted's grand creations or any town's recreational green, the city park has not quite captured the imagination in the same way that the wilderness park has.
I agree with your assertion that Arcadia and the urban public park are connected. Like wilderness, Arcadia also exists as an idea, but it formed out of the experience of the central Peloponnese - the verdent, sparsely-populated source of pastoral imagery. If we imagine Arcadia as an experience of nature that delivers comfort and bounty without the experience of work, then nothing comes as close to it as an urban public park. In this way Arcadia is closer to an Edenic vision than a wilderness park ever could be, especially considering the leave-no-trace ethic of our wilderness. Eden can not exist without our trace and it’s this trace, that intersection of ourselves and the land, that I find most compelling.
An urban park like Prospect is more than a collective backyard. It reveals humanity in nature, it provokes our needs, it bears our interventions. Within park bounds you will find sports, barbecues, family picnics, dog walking, sexual encounters, bird-watching, concerts, festivals, sunbathing, cycling, running, skating, drug sales, strolling, driving, boating, foraging, parades, fishing, suicide, and even murder. Take all activities into account and you’ll also find construction, maintenance, gardening, education, and arborculture. People have their own ideas about what appropriate use of the park is, the limits of that use, and generally are self-policing about those limits. What you find is a space created not only by Olmsted design, but also by the public. I came to painting Prospect Park out of this understanding; to paint my local park, to paint a place well-known, consecrated, populated, and not entirely my own.
Before the late 19th century and with few exceptions, landscape painting or depictions of “open space” served a handful of functions: the sublime (religious allegory), the picturesque or Arcadia (a stage for aristocratic leisure), and subjugation (agricultural toil, conquest). These aimed to satisfy the power or status of those who commissioned them (as in Mr. and Mrs. Andrews). This form of pictorial expression has largely fallen out of favor, although it still asserts itself in the visual lingo of real estate and tourism. Even as Olmsted’s designs were celebrated as exceptional and democratic, they were created out of the oppressive language of dominion.
I paint distance, as far as my eye can see, as an expression of my own power. In Prospect Park that is never very far, always restrained by the arborial scrim, the city streets, the buildings, so that a sense of melancholic limitation inhabits these paintings. Yet, my work is also a way to wrench open that oppressive dominion to myself as an artist and individual. I lay claim to the space, I own what cannot be owned. Consider what I had said earlier about the use of the park, that there is self-determination within the park’s bounds, a reclamation that has overtaken the pastoral ideal that preordained a constrained social order. My paintings pictorialize the interplay between the picturesque landscape, a family barbeque, strolling drug addicts, or a ball field and myself, the artist-witness, which, in turn, sets the historic image of the land on its ear.
Frank Meuschke received his BFA at SUNY The College at New Paltz and his MFA in Painting at New Mexico State University. He has attended The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, The MacDowell Colony, Henry Street Settlement, and Weir Farm residencies. His work has been exhibited nationally, most recently at The Museum of the City of New York, Providence College, and the Painting Center in New York City. This summer he will teach the course ‘Landscape and Meaning’ at Art New England. He is currently an instructor of drawing at the School of Architecture and Design, New York Institute of Technology, has been Dean at the Skowhegan School, and writes on landscape and art on his blog. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.