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Back to Features 97

Earl Cunningham

Green Forest Gap

Black Schooner on
New England Bay


Green Barn and Silo

Chief's Entourage

Seminole Indians,
Pavilion Key,

earl cunningham:
caribbean flavor, 
yankee values

by Alan Moore

The self-proclaimed "primitive" painter Earl Cunningham saw himself in contest with his contemporary, "Grandma" Moses (in fact, the Galerie St. Etienne paired them last year), and his painting, like the farm wife's simple landscapes, which evolved from needlework and derived from popular prints, self-consciously recalls the past of folk Americana. His waterside landscape scenes are set in a past in which commerce and labor were dominated by horse- and sail-power. They are overt fantasies, but they borrow the homespun mystery of 19th- century decorative painting, their charm wrought from a long-vanished visual culture. A selection of Cunningham's paintings is currently on view at Beacon-Hill Fine Art, which deals primarily in 19th-century academic American art. To put Cunningham's work (and work by other vernacular artists) alongside "high" art carries on the work of "revisionist" history, part of the curatorial impulse that seeks to broaden the presented picture of American experience across old lines of race and class. Born in Maine, Earl Cunningham (1893-1977) worked as an itinerant peddler, a sailor then a captain, an Indian relic hunter and finally an antique dealer. Since boyhood he painted. As Robert Hobbs' fine monograph (1994) makes clear, Cunningham is a 20th-century inheritor of that line of 19th-century vernacular image-makers whose work so delighted the modernist artists who summered in Maine in the 1920s. He was a hobby painter whose commitments were first to labor, then to trade. Nevertheless he was a dedicated, self-conscious artist who after 1949 kept his paintings all together without selling them in a museum next to his antique store. With this move (considered eccentric by neighbors), Cunningham held his art apart from commerce in a locked gallery, deliberately insisting upon a "purity" for his painting project that allied him with modernism, and ultimately provoked serious attention. The work itself is remarkable, and well rewards close looking. Cunningham worked through his deficiencies as a representational painter, turning his limited mimetic capacities to account within a painterly style based on patterned topographical composition and bold coloristic effects. Like many vernacular painters, Cunningham tries effects he can't render: the light in yawning warehouse interiors, tropical water flowers growing thick under wharves, the sun-catching ripples of water around a fishing line, and always the shadows and reflections of boats in the water. His painting is ambitious even beyond his means, a style which economically evokes the real. The works are overtly simple. All land is clearly visible. All ships are shown in shooting gallery profile. As in the draftsmanly ship portraits done by the Bard brothers and other 19th-century painters, Cunningham's ships are never coming or going, but always passing by. All paths and roads are shown entire, as lines without a break. The rendering is cartographic--you can't get lost--nor can Earl's figures, those little blobs with hats and eyes. In the larger landscapes different types of land are sharply demarcated--swamp, forest, farm, grassland, front lawn. This country is parceled up for use; it is a pictorial order within which private property is scrupulously respected. Fringing the parsed land at water's edge are docks, landings, anchorages, warehouses--a busy waterfront where people are mostly either at work filling up the warehouses or fishing on their day off. (In this painting, "line" has a literal meaning: all anchorage cables and fishing lines are clearly and grossly shown.) Cunningham's work might be read as the kind of pictorial wish-making that is fulfilled by property ownership. In fact, he yearned for a houseboat. His painting is a decorative topography of specified uses, unified by startling atmospheric color, weird skies, exotic waters, the color of fantasy. Yet for all its coloristic brilliance, Cunningham's is a world ordered by work--Caribbean flavor, Yankee values. This world of travel and commerce is preeminently the sailor's, with its boats in harbors and bays, all in prospect, seen from afar, from above, a panoramic aerial view like the macrocosmic establishing shot that opens a cinematic narrative. Earl's paintings, seen in ensemble as he originally displayed them, might be like a sort of latter-day proletarian novel, a romantic rural version of the working-class history-painting produced during the era of the Federal Art Project. But these exotic scenes evade this kind of mechanical social reading, just as they do not entirely accord with the notion that they depict good government as seen by the jolly tar-- an "American Eden," the "simple life," "carefree," "peaceful, idyllic." There is too much strange here. A constant trait of Earl's painting--and it is traditional--is the odd mix of sizes in the objects he depicts. Big and little ships and houses, people and birds are stuck into the composition like decals in a scrapbook, or toys set up on a playroom floor. (He sometimes plays with these anomalies, so a distant small boat becomes a weathervane on a house.) The order of size within these works has to do with recession into space, but only roughly. Often it is as if a few different scenes were done one on top of another, all going on simultaneously, with different casts of characters. Overall spatial unity is rare; instead, the paintings are welded together by hot tropical color. Cunningham's art has aspects of both allegory and history painting, an effect that is seen most explicitly in his representations of Indians. While some of his Florida scenes of Seminoles seem correctly observed, many more of his depictions of Native Americans are a pastiche of plains and woodland usages, including canoes, teepees and feather headdresses. These are generic "Indians," and may be understood as markers of a primeval American past, signposts to an earlier habitation. Indian Chiefs Procession is an emblem, with paddling figures forming up symmetrically, like heraldic figures blazoned upon a landscape ground. But what about these dusky gray Norsemen? Viking explorers often join the Indians, or their dragon boats move among modern ships. In Florida Everglades, the big complicated picture Earl sent to Jackie Kennedy (now at the JFK Library in Boston), the Norsemen have landed. A woman sits within a bower attended by two men and three children. Through these figures Cunningham's landscapes are exploring the territory of American origins, the land's discovery, immigration and the many ethnicities that make up the nation. In 1949 Earl moved to Florida. Alice Ford, in her book Pictorial Folk Art, opted for the term "primitive" to describe vernacular American artists. (To this day antique store owners denominate this painting either "folk" or "primitive.") Ford pointed to Joseph Pickett (1848-1919) whose "work forms an arc between the painting of the 19th century and modern times." Cunningham's work much resembles Pickett's, a Pennsylvania grocer whose paintings were acquired and exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art. (The MoMA's commitment to popular painting did not outlast Barr's tenure; today the only sign of it is the presence of Henri Rousseau.) Cunningham started painting during Pickett's last years. He is positioned similarly, as the heir to a tradition of workmanly vernacular view-painting, an artist working through the era of high modernism and self- consciously incorporating pictorial innovations as he became aware of them through the popular press. Is this positioning deliberate or inadvertent? Is it an artifact of Cunningham's "discovery," or of his canny self-creation? Ford writes, "The appreciation of folk painting in our time [1949] is a phenomenon of far more subtlety than the painting itself." This position invites a condescension which can gag the art. What kind of voice will Earl's painting be allowed in today's chorus? Is this work the "other" of the modernist and post-modernist painting of its day, the subducted voice of the vanished academy, or the difference split? (my thanks to Ralph Sessions) Earl Cunningham at Beacon Hill Fine Art, Jan. 17-Mar. 1, 1997, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021. A traveling exhibition of his work is also on view at the Westmoreland Museum, Greenburg, Pa., Feb. 16-Mar. 29, 1997. ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art historian.