In upstate New York, high above the banks of the Hudson River, stands Olana, the estate of 19th-century American artist Frederic Church.
A central figure of the Hudson River School of painters, Church traveled to South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Many of his most famous paintings, including The Heart of the Andes (1859), now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, depict the Americas beyond US borders.
Inspired by the architecture of the Middle East, the Olana mansion was carefully sited to offer stunning views of the Hudson and the surrounding landscape. Now a state historic site, Olana frequently presents exhibitions related to Church and his art.
Some time ago, the Olana Partnership and the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) began developing a collaborative exhibition at Olana, based on the CPPC’s collection of traveler artists’ work in Latin America.
Teresita Fernández, whose art frequently explores the issues surrounding landscape and its interpretation, was invited to collaborate on the project, guest-curated by Sara Meadows of the CPPC.
The result is a critical look at Church and his contemporaries, and an exploration of how the “American” landscape is defined, and by whom.
Here, a walk-through of Overlook: Teresita Fernández Confronts Frederic Church at Olana, with excerpts from Fernández’s exhibition essay,“Sometimes Landscape is About What You Can’t See.” The show is on view at Olana through November 5.
In my own work I’ve always regarded the landscape in an almost anthropomorphized and reciprocal way, so that if you look at the landscape, the landscape must, it seems, also look back at you. This premise of looking and being looked at shaped my ideas for Overlook.
The installation in the main gallery consists of a densely packed wall of portraits staring at a wall filled with landscape paintings. The subjects here return their gaze to the painted landscapes that perhaps depict the lands of their origins in images where they do not see themselves.
As visitors to the gallery . . . we are positioned between the two walls; when we look to the left at the landscapes, we feel 36 pairs of eyes at our backs, and when we turn to the right to look at the wall of mostly nameless faces, the landscapes become an out-of-sight backdrop behind us.
The two wall compositions are interspersed with my own images on graphite panels of ghostlike, darkened landscapes and places imagined, as well as portraits of artists from the Americas that I’ve known in real life or from art history: Wifredo Lam, Félix González Torres, Nari Ward, Janine Antoni, Ana Mendieta, and Jesús Rafael Soto, whose Penetrable sculpture sits on the land at Olana, forever changing the way we see the Hudson Valley through it.
In a separate gallery, paintings of lush flora and detailed botanical drawings cover an entire wall, while across from them a single solemn portrait of an indigenous man named Popurito, painted by [Auguste] Morisot in 1886, silently watches us as we watch him look at the room full of flowers.
Amongst the paintings of birds of paradise, acacias and orchids are my own darkened flowers that punctuate the wall of flora like negative spaces or mute silhouettes.
Overlook seeks to amplify the reading of paintings by Church and his contemporaries to go beyond their authority as quintessential “American art,” to offer the idea that landscape is not a fixed vista in front of our eyes, but instead an ever-changing portrait of people in places.
In this way, landscape becomes . . . about how we imagine narratives about what has significantly been erased or omitted; to plant the seed that landscape is sometimes more about what you don’t see than what is shown in the picture.
By practicing this kind of looking, I hope to question to what extent real landscapes, or even iconic paintings of landscapes, continue to evolve when we choose to confront them as inquisitive, historically informed, contemporary viewers willing to look beneath the surface.
Overlook: Teresita Fernández Confronts Frederic Church at Olana is a collaboration between the Olana Partnership and the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. It runs through November 5 at the Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, New York.