PRINT October 1986


THE AMERICAN MIDWEST IS as much a state of mind as a place, and certainly its boundaries—symbolic or geographic—change depending on who’s doing the surveying. The region is commonly viewed as the home of “traditional” values, of huddled clutters of small towns, of the silent farmer plowing silent fields, of provincial conformity It has long provided us with an assortment of local images and personalities isolated against the land’s immense, indifferent backdrop.

The symbiotic relationship of geography and values has occupied many Midwestern artists in the past, and recently, too, certain artists have chosen this landscape as the conduit of meditations on the character of place. Today there are artists who depict with great accuracy the specifics of weather, soil, plant life, and rural architecture, but they set these things within a countryside distant to the point of also appearing imagined. They produce "not a portrait of a definite place at a definite time, but of an ideal place at an ideal time.”1

James Butler, Keith Jacobshagen, and James Winn, who have been called “heartland painters” because of their depictions of the Midwestern landscape, treat the expanse of farmland or prairie and all that sky with meticulous attention to detail.2 Their range of approaches acknowledges a tradition of landscape painting that can be traced back through the American Luminists to the German Romantics of the early 19th century. But these contemporary painters are neither lamenting the conquest of nor memorializing a forest primeval. Although they infuse their subject with the feeling of someplace passed, or passing, these works present a contemporary world whose accretions of environmental detail are too specific, too localized, to function like the generic symbols that informed the Romantics’ sublime Nature.

This “heartland” seems to have no epic history. Its mosaic of tilled or fallow fields, timber, and occasional farmhouses is not the scene of great events, yet it is portrayed with an attention to detail that makes a claim of significance for the site. A use of scenic distance directs our involvement with this work; distance between the picture plane and the foreground, between the viewer and the contemporary life within the picture, and between land and sky.

A perceptual chasm yawns between us and these pictures, like the distance between the audience and the stage. Yet we look neither beneath nor above the horizon line. The ground we watch from leads to the ground level of the picture, so that the interruption of contiguity, rather than making the scene float like a vision, merely prevents us from entering it.

The “place” in this work is far away—it would take a substantial walk to reach it—but not so far as to let the myth of the land itself become the subject. This prevents the structures of domestication—farmhouses, barns, silos, the evidence of our presence—from being portrayed as picturesque or local color, converting them into archetypes. The overarching dome of the sky is the greatest distance here, its prodigious measure confirming our scale in the world; but this suggestion of the modesty of human presence is very different from the Romantic image of human insignificance in the vastness of nature. This is a meteorologically correct atmosphere, without the rhetorical flourishes of earlier landscapes. In its analytic tone it is less than heaven, suggesting time stopped rather than timelessness, choosing memory over myth.

Butler’s pastel drawings offer the most idealized presentation of the Midwestern landscape among these three artists. His relatively large-scale works, measuring up to 4 by 6 feet, provide a spacious arena for the artist’s bravura execution. Farmhouses, barns, sheds, and the occasional silo or church steeple punctuate the middle distance. This mundane subject matter is rendered with exceptional crispness for a medium as luscious and fluid as pastel. There is an idyllic quality to this work. The pasture that occupies the foreground of A View from Albrecht Acres, 1985, forms an inverse curve against the horizon, as if the earth itself were smiling. Beyond the grazing cattle, an insistently serene panorama recedes into the background. The attitude here is one of bucolic plenitude, a Midwest untouched, at least visually, by economic crisis.

The clusters of buildings that enter Butler’s depictions of verdant farmland and gently rolling hills are nearly as distanced from each other as they are from the viewer’s location. This distancing tempers the patterning of the scene. The separate symbols of human culture and nature are placed into a larger compositional order. The geometry posed by the farmhouses and woods in A Patterned Landscape, 1985, clearly demonstrates a consciousness of modern life’s “hard edges,” maintaining enough tension to resist becoming an exercise in the picturesque.

Jacobshagen renders the human presence less emphatically than Butler. He shows the late evening sky at virtually the last moment before nightfall. An almost palpable, brooding stillness is charged by a dusky drama of atmosphere and light created by an updated Luminist palette. The empty highway points toward the horizon in Evening, the Day before the Solstice, 1985. A faint suggestion of a distant town settles between the margin of ground and sky There is a Nordic isolation here, unrelieved by the comforting evidence of other people.

While no longer a wilderness, Jacobshagen’s landscape is not fully tamed even after a century of cultivation. The woods that encroach from both sides of East of Ratzlaffs Farm, 1985, are tangled and black beneath the swiftly approaching night. There is a suggestion of danger here—if not to the Indians of Plains history, at least from the possibility of cruel actions in the dark.

Jacobshagen’s use of small scale—some works measure just 11 by 12 inches—draws us close enough to read the discursive captions that run along the bottom margin of each work. (On East of Ratzlaffs Farm, for example, it continues with the date—7 February 1985—and the phrase “Stevens Creek Frozen Over—Deer Tracks in the Snow near the Windbreak”) The language itself charts our entry into the picture, while its reminiscent tone combines with Jacobshagen’s pink and blue palette to provoke a moody, slightly melancholic feeling characteristic of his art.

The rich tonal modulations of Winn’s atmospheric studies occasionally show such rural commonplaces as sheds, electrical towers, and railroad tracks, but in most of his work the evidence of human presence is reduced to the furrows of plowed fields and the cultivated regularity of standing crops. Winn himself has named Caspar David Friedrich as his spiritual predecessor, adding, "I respond to the sense of stillness . . . whether it occurs in art or in nature. A sense of stillness, of hesitation almost, a feeling of power and majesty in Nature, the mystery of the sublime force which guides the movements of the earth and sky.”3 Winn’s paintings of standing rainwater in tilled fields at evening are an especially vivid reference to Friedrich’s symbolic nature. In Wet Fields: Twilight, 1985, the nearly empty scene is occupied by only a few small trees on the horizon. The freshly plowed earth, the complementary infiltration of dark wisps of clouds in the sky, the twilight colors reflected in puddles, all act to infuse the picture with a nearly visionary immanence.

Yet Winn’s paintings are devoid of rhetorical figures. There is no equivalent in his oeuvre to the symbolically important personage in many of Friedrich’s works. The lack of direct human presence clearly differentiates Winn from his forebear. Nature does not rise up defiantly in response to humanity’s drive to tame it. Rather, Winn’s sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary—of crops waiting for harvest, of everyday fields like the ones we pass on car rides—might stir in the viewer a very different and contemporary sense of loss. The undepicted figures who work this land are becoming extinct as the century accelerates the steps that have pulled first the hand from the earth, then the hand from the machine, drawing it to the innovations of computer technology These common views of fields we’ve all seen at one time or another, even if only on television, are moving for the very fact that they are images we can no longer necessarily take for granted.

Butler, Jacobshagen, and Winn share a pride of place. While the figures and routines of the Midwest don’t occupy center stage in these works, the scene is never without evidence of the region’s unique and fragile culture, which is the real subject here, the reason behind the retrospective attitude that typifies these paintings. In their seizure of transient moments—dusk, dawn, the calm after the storm—and in the distances, pictorial and conceptual, through which they separate us from the scene, these artists attempt to stop the present at the moment of its yielding to the future.

Buzz Spector is an artist and the editor of Whitewalls, a Chicago-based magazine of artists’ writings.



1. "The Heartland Painters Defining a Contemporary American Myth: in Heartland Painters, Chicago: Frumkin & Struve Gallery. exhibition catalogue, 1985, n.p.

2. The work of these three artists is the subject of "Heartland Painters,” an exhibition originating at the Frumkin & Struve Gallery, Chicago in 1985, and since then traveling to the Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota. Duluth; the Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison; and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It can still be seen at the Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman, until October 5; the Springfield Art Museum, Springfield, Missouri, from October 19 to November 23; and the Southeast Arkansas Arts & Sciences Center, Pine Bluff, from December 5 1986 to January 17 1987.

3. James Winn, “Why Do You Paint Landscapes,” in James Winn, Chicago Frumkin & Struve Gallery, exhibition catalogue, 1984, n.p. Artist’s statement.