Hit the highway with the Blanton Museum’s ‘Open Road’

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 Austin360
'Mellow Meadow,' 2012, by Ryan McGinley. Nudes frolicking in nature does not begin to describe this photographer's road series. Ryan McGinley/Contributed by artist and Team Gallery

Grab the keys. Pile into the car. Time for a road trip.

Through Jan. 7, you and the family won’t be forced to drive far to soak up the images, feelings, dramas and unfettered dreams of this timeless American obsession, since the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas presents the magnificent touring exhibition, “The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip.”

This is just the kind of show that Austinites tend to embrace with open arms.

First, it’s photography, moreover, a rare, ambitious foray into this medium for the Blanton Museum of Art, which is expanding its photographic holdings, especially after the Contemporary Austin shuttled its collection over to the Blanton earlier this year. Austinites cotton to photography, which plays important roles in simultaneous shows at the nearby Ransom Center, Briscoe Center and Bullock Texas State History Museum. (See them all.)

Also, road trip! Positioned in the middle of the continent, Austinites have long felt the call of the open road, whether during the desperate migrations of the Depression, the frenetic escapes from suburbia during the postwar period, the existential pilgrimages of the beats and the hippies in the 1950s and ’60s, the documentary and journalistic forays into “lost” or “hidden” America before, during and after the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, along with the more self-conscious artistic, often tongue-in-cheek diversions moving into the 21st century.

This reporter first fell in love with “The Open Road” in 2016 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. The viewing experience at the Blanton, however, is far superior, since the exhibit is given much more elbow room in bright, capacious galleries.

Famous American photographers, such as Ed Ruscha, William Eggleston and Garry Winogrand, lend a sense of comforting familiarity to the exhibit. Yet some of the most arresting images come from visitors or immigrants, such as Austrian-born Inge Morath, Swiss duo Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, and Japanese photographer Shinya Fujiwara.

Blanton curator Claire Howard and team have added to the touring show a few choice selections from University of Texas collections, such as professor Eli Reed’s remarkable documentary images and beat author Jack Kerouac’s miraculously preserved road journal, both usually housed at the Ransom Center, as well as a copy of the Green Book travel guide, which helped African-American motorists find segregated services during the Jim Crow era, this copy borrowed from the Briscoe Center.

Yet the prints tell all. Robert Frank, for instance, takes the viewer into a gritty underworld of streets, sidewalks and highways in America’s South, East and West, some of them long-gone urbanscapes. Meanwhile, Ruscha’s impeccable gray prints of gas stations, taken along old Route 66 during the 1960s, seem diminutive and modest compared to his iconic abstractions of the same subjects.

Some of photojournalist Morath’s images were taken in and around Reno and Las Vegas, and they convey the eerie, frequently reproduced aesthetic of those cities. Less conventional are the roadside spots where history and auto tourism mashed up, such as Cherokee Village in North Carolina, where she shows station wagons lined up to unload gawkers onto an arcade of tourist traps.

Winogrand, inspired by Walker Evans’ “American Photographs,” drove a slow 1957 Ford Fairlane through 14 states in 1957, taking pictures all the way. The images in this show, however, are from 1964, including a power-packed photo of tourists at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. The site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination had already become, only a year later, a magnet for morbid curiosity.

It’s easy for a sophisticated viewer to feel some emotional distance from the middle Americans bagged by Eggleston in his “Los Alamos Portfolio,” but his is more than a crooked mirror version of flyover America. The images challenge us to extend empathy to those who don’t seem likely to extend it back.

Lee Friedlander made the rounds of American monuments, such as Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and the Father Duffy statue in the middle of crowded Times Square. Yet he shoots them from unexpected points of view, emphasizing the visual context rather than the primary subjects. At times, the monuments almost disappear from view.

Joel Meyerowitz, a close friend of Winogrand, shares among the widest range of subjects in the show. He sees the margins of America as primed from small melodramas, and he sometimes uses car windows as a framing device for brief journeys into other worlds. Jacob Holdt takes a fleshy, baroque view of the U.S., from hungry sharecroppers in Georgia to weirdly pampered dining guests in Palm Beach, Fla.

Connections with the subjects shift perceptively in the 1970s with Stephen Shore’s spare scenes, often bereft of human presence. Bernard Plossu brings fresh eyes to the American West and Southwest with desiccated images of ordinary life — or at least the life seems everyday if you have spent time there. To Plossu, the scenes might have appeared exotic.

Victor Burgin adds short texts to his large prints, which expand the meanings of the images, including a nuclear family of Space Age tourists pictured in “Nuclear Power.” Juxtapositions of nature and antiquity with jarring intrusions of modernity populate the pictures of Joel Sternfeld, who brings to his lens a wicked sense of humor. One of his images that I will never forget shows a burning structure in McLean, Va. As flames engulf a farmhouse, a firefighter calmly shops for pumpkins in the foreground. This can’t be staged, can it?

By the time we reach the 1980s, the staging, manipulating and rearranging of constituent elements are fair game. Shinya Fujiwara sees an alien American West that would have been unrecognizable to previous generations. Alec Soth discovers the Gothic oddity of a Mississippi River basin, while Todd Hido softens his landscapes into romanticized half-mysteries.

The most frisky photos here were taken by Ryan McGinley, who traveled with a game group of young women and men willing to run wild in nature while nude. There’s something liberating about all their movement, but, aside from that, the images are beautiful in their own right. Justine Kurland documented people already on the road, including folks living in tents, trailers and recreational vehicles. The viewer feels rude peeking into the lives of folks for whom the open road is not a dream or a metaphor but a daily reality to be endured and, at the same time, celebrated.

Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs go the furthest astray taking all these pre-existing themes and turning them in on themselves with playfully staged images of the road, including a motel room shown with and without walls.

Throughout the exhibit, conveniently posted maps give a clear sense of the routes followed by the photographers and the pinpoints where the photographs were taken. For instance, Ruscha’s slightly crooked line of dots goes directly from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles with no diversions, while Friedlander, Shore and Sternfeld appeared to have visited almost every state in the continental U.S.

Oh, sure, you aren’t going to experience the real rush of the road at any museum show, but you will see a lot of America through extremely varied lenses at the Blanton Museum of Art.

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