‘In American Waters’ explores nation’s turbulent, lasting relationship with the sea

‘In American Waters’ explores nation’s turbulent, lasting relationship with the sea

Mary Jordan

NWA Democrat Gazette

Sounds of seabirds and waves crashing against the shore greet visitors to “In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting,” setting the stage for an exhibition creators say details the nation’s deep relationship with its waterways.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s latest temporary exhibition opened Nov. 6 and features some 90 pieces in 11 sections that demonstrate the key role oceans have historically played throughout American society, reveals Austen Barron Bailly, the Bentonville museum’s chief curator.

The connection even extends to Crystal Bridges, whose name is inspired by Crystal Springs, which feeds the ponds the museum’s bridge buildings span, Bailly says. Northwest Arkansas is likewise connected to greater national waterways, as the White River empties into the Mississippi River, then into the Gulf of Mexico and subsequently the Atlantic Ocean.

“We really are actually connecting to these oceans that feel very far away from a geographic standpoint,” Bailly shares. “This exhibition is a way to really embrace that expansiveness and that feeling of connection and really look at how the sea has shaped, not only our interest, but our nation.”

Visitors can explore a diverse range of works by modern and historical artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Amy Sherald, Kay WalkingStick, Norman Rockwell, Hale Woodruff, Paul Cadmus, Thomas Hart Benton, Jacob Lawrence, Valerie Hegarty and Stuart Davis.

Some social conversations for the exhibit begin in the “In Port” section, as curators say artists have long promoted idealized visions and social realities of labor and leisure connected to the nation’s ports.

“The Fleet’s In” by Paul Cadmus presents a colorful array of boisterous sailors and their romantic interests. Created in 1934 for an exhibition in Washington, D.C., the piece presents a rowdy image of Fleet Week that curators say encountered controversy for its open depiction of queer desire.

It’s difficult to discuss America’s relationship with the seas without also considering the nation’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade, histories of enslavement and economies of slavery that supported a great deal of maritime commerce, Bailly pointed out during a media preview of the exhibition Nov. 4.

“It’s a very important part of this exhibition,” she said.

“Sea Sick,” a mixed media piece created in 2014 by Nick Cave, features vintage paintings of ships at sea surrounding an antique tobacco jar depicting a racist, Black stereotype that’s set between raised hands and topped by a wall hanging of a sailing ship rendered in gold plastic.

The piece shows how the original sales of the items comprising the work served as agents of oppression, rather than opportunities for commerce and invention, Bailly suggests.

“For him, the traditions of marine painting are meant to be reckoned with for their very painful history,” she says of Cave.

Cave will visit Crystal Bridges to discuss “Sea Sick” in greater detail in January.

Additional sections in the exhibition discuss topics such as immigration and the historical relationship between cowboy songs and 19th-century sea shanties originating from the musical traditions of enslaved Africans, Bailly continues. Sections displaying works on “Horizons” and “Beachcombing” close the exhibition, encouraging visitors to indulge deeper in the aesthetic vision of artists and the dynamic zone of the beach.

“As tourists we probably experienced recreation, rejuvenation and a chance to beachcomb, which today is kind of looking for treasures or sea glass or little things that we might find,” Bailly says, noting that artist depictions of such traditions explore why people continue to be drawn to the sea or contemplation of it.

“In American Waters” is co-organized by Crystal Bridges and Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The exhibition is co-created by Bailly and Daniel Finamore, The Russell W. Knight Maritime Art and History curator with the Peabody Essex Museum. It will remain on display through Jan. 31.



‘In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting’

WHEN — On display through Jan. 31

WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville

COST — $12; members, veterans, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants and youth under 18, free

INFO — 657-2335 or crystalbridges.org

Categories: Galleries