Museum Exhibition Tackles California Farmland and Farmwork

In August, the Fresno Art Museum opened an exhibition entitled, “California: A Landscape of Dreams.” The show, which runs through the end of December 2011, provides a rare forum for art that responds directly to the state’s agricultural landscapes and politics. Linda Cano, Executive Director of the Museum and the curatorial visionary behind the show, explains, “the guiding principle was to show varied perspectives on the perception and reality of land use in California.” A series of paintings in the central atrium highlight “idyllic pastoral scenes of California rivers, meadows, valleys, coastal areas, and farmlands.” But as museum-goers peel off into the galleries featuring installations by esteemed Chicana artist Amalia Mesa-Bains (the show’s headliner) and the photographs of San Francisco-based photographer Barron Bixler, a starkly different portrait of California–and especially the Great Central Valley–takes shape.

Mesa-Bains’s exhibition, “Geography of Memory,” draws on her personal memories of the Santa Clara and San Joaquin Valleys and her family’s history as immigrants and farm laborers. An important retrospective of her intricate, sensory-rich installation work, the exhibit includes pieces such as “Transparent Migration” and “The Curandera’s Botanica” that incorporate synthetic and organic materials and that pay homage to family history, Mexican iconography, and the botanical world. To walk through and immerse oneself in these installations is to encounter a space of curio cabinets packed with botanical samples, family photographs, handmade journals, rows of sculptured maize, religious icons and, in the case of “The Curandera’s Botanica,” a stainless steel medical examination table. Spending time in the galleries containing these visceral and expansive installations is to see California’s shared, multiethnic histories that center on cultivation and food but also the violent realities of migrant labor and industrial agriculture.

Walking back through the atrium and past its permanent collection of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art takes the viewer into Bixler’s exhibition, “A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley.” Comprising over forty photographs arranged into fragmented clusters that at once seem mechanical and organic, the exhibit includes images of state-of-the-art industrial dairies, rusted machinery, manure evaporation lagoons, brownfield sites, and austere grain elevators. These are the images that viewers notice first, perhaps seeing in them a searing critique of industrial agriculture and its environmental costs. With time, though, other images come into focus that offer a more ambivalent view: a newly planted field glowing yellow and green with young crops; perfectly still, fog-shrouded orchards in winter; doves taking flight from a burned-out trailer; and a man’s weathered hands held poised over the soil he stands on (the only photograph containing a person). In a recent article on Bixler’s project, Fresno Bee arts columnist Donald Munro captures the overall effect of “A New Pastoral”: “an almost ghostly tour of a familiar landscape, one that strips away the human presence while at the same time zeroing in on the human impact.”

“Geography of Memory” and “A New Pastoral” on the surface offer starkly different visions of California and its agricultural story. For Cano, the former “remind[s] the viewer of the difficult life journey of the immigrant,” the latter of the “environmental degradation caused by industrial farming.” But, as Bixler puts it, “both shows explore how agriculture simultaneously shapes the land and the fortunes of the people who live on it and work it. Both shows present a tension between growth and decay, wholeness and fragmentation.”

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