by Renny Pritikin
Terrain of Discourse, Mary Anne Kluth’s current exhibition at SF City College, contains only four works, but it’s chock-full of ideas. She traces American art from 19th-century landscape painting to contemporary internet culture, demonstrating how that lineage reflects social and political reality. The exhibition, dominated by a room-sized diorama and accompanied by two paintings and a collage, shows idealized, unpeopled landscapes that meld her two main influences: Disney and Thomas Moran. Together, they pack a punch.
One way of approaching the ideas behind this work came from the late Leigh Markopoulos, former chair of the curatorial practice program at the California College of the Arts. She opined that the Disney Museum at Fort Mason was the best in the Bay Area. I couldn’t imagine that to be true until I visited. Disney’s genius, I realized, lay in his ability to valorize American values. Kluth’s works employ that same cultural alchemy by transforming Disney’s myths, legends, fairy tales and propaganda into broadly accessible art. Kluth embraces this commercialism for what it’s always been: a shaper of consciousness and identity. On the surface, her work charms, but underneath it offers an incisive critique.
It begins with the aesthetics of the Hudson River School and Western Romantic landscape painting (Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Thomas Moran), which went hand in hand with the ideology of Manifest Destiny and American westward expansion. Kluth gathers cloud formations, rocks, rivers, grass, and cliffs from specific rides in Disney parks and animations (Toon Town, Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain), as well as Tokyo’s Sanrio Puroland Hello Kitty park, using techniques often associated with Thomas Moran: dark foregrounds and brightly lit sites in the distance in particular. In Moran’s work, they form layered, receding landscapes, which Kluth, in her diorama, Terrain of Discourse (2012-2023), makes literal in three dimensions, thereby walking a line between homage and parody. By revealing her stagecraft with visible wooden supports, she draws attention to the constructed, artificial nature of the mythology of the West created by 19th-century artists.
With Master Study, Land Bridge (2019), a hand-cut inkjet collage inspired by Church’s 1852 painting, The Natural Bridge, Virginia, Kluth brings the exhibition back to two-dimensionality. In this, the bottom left and right sides are deeply shadowed, while the center is bathed in bright sunshine. Kluth cleverly nudges Church’s idyllic scene toward borderline mockery. Disney’s saccharine approach, Kluth argues, is merely an extension of the 19th-century optimism.
In Here Lies Ryan Dunn (2022-23) and Here Lies Lowtax, He Never Scored (2023), Kluth introduces darker themes. Made after giving birth during the pandemic, these two overstuffed paintings, based on the Hudson River format, reflect a crowded mind trying to cope: with parenthood, covid, climate change and the rise of right-wing ideologues. These visual trapeze acts narrowly escape plunging into chaos. Ryan Dunn, for example, includes, in just one corner, wreckage from a car crash, Conestoga wagons, a grandfather clock, a multi-screen computer monitor, an ape skull, a cactus, a scene from a Western movie, a garage, a skeleton, an anime figure, a Raggedy Ann doll, a bit of landscape and more. Kluth wants to represent as many facets of culture as can be stuffed into a single painting. And that’s just the right corner.
Near the center, we see a hospitalized man pierced by IV lines, looking like a contemporary St. Sebastian. That man is Bam Margera, a former skateboard legend and star of the MTV reality show Jackass, from which he was fired for substance abuse. Dunn, his best friend and Jackass partner, died in 2012. For Kluth, Dunn’s fate represents the tragic epitome of destruction-by-mass-media attention. His life formed part of the background noise of her youth, part of her musings about where it all went off the tracks. Lowtax is a meditation on a related figure, Richard Kyanka, famous for his website Something Awful on which he reviewed video games, movies and comics. He died by suicide at 45 as his popularity waned, another pop culture figure elevated and destroyed by a new form of artistic identity made possible by internet culture.
Kluth took the exhibition’s title, Terrain of Discourse, from writer Jeff Giesea, who viewed the internet as the locus of ongoing warfare between progressive and reactionary viewpoints. (Giesea, an ally of the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, often voices Trump-like opinions.) Kluth maintains that for millennials like herself, the internet, like Hudson River School landscapes, is a universe filled with darkness, interrupted by brief glimpses of an illusory, fantastical utopia just out of reach, a new kind of American wilderness.
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Mary Anne Kluth @ “Terrain of Discourse” @ SF City College Art Gallery through November 30, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal and the author of a recently published memoir, At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists.