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  • Christopher La Fleur

Fever Dream: Where Past Meets Present


Albert Bierstadt, "Lander's Peak", 1863

As one of the many, many tasks of an artist-entrepreneur I found myself entangled in paperwork and project proposals earlier this week. Many of the questions were routine: define the budget and scope of your project. Upload recent imagery. Click here to acknowledge....and so forth.


However, there was a single question on each application that repeatedly tripped me up. "Describe this project in detail. What is the nature of your work as it relates to this project?"


Read: what inspires your work?


I was stumped. I can't very well write, "Well...I don't really believe in the lightning bolt of inspiration." Likewise, I couldn't exactly fill in the box with, "I create because I must and it's essentially an obsessive compulsion with no unifying or defining hallmark."


I took several days to think deeply about the depth and breadth of my work to date. It was a retrospective and deeply introspective period of time. Is there a unifying theme to where I've been? A mission statement to define and refine where I'm going? Much to my own surprise (one should never stop surprising themselves) I realized the answer was yes.



Albert Bierstadt, "Looking Up the Yosemite Valley," 1863

To understand where I'm going it is essential to understand where the American art-making community has already been.


The 1820's were a heady, aspirational time in American history. The Louisiana Purchase had been completed just a decade previous while the annexation of Mexico would occur just 20 years later.


Broader (and more controversial) themes of imperialism, expansion, and opportunity (those available to white land-owning men, that is) announced the end of one era and heralded the arrival of another. For the first time, America spanned the continent 'from sea to shining sea'.


Immigrants from Europe, the cultural center of the Western World, were also arriving by the thousands. With them, their traditions and artistic inclinations. Thomas Cole was one of these immigrants. He, Asher Durand, and Thomas Doughty are collectively considered the founders of the Hudson River School, their work rooted in English and German pastoral traditions. They set to work documenting what they saw in a time before the proliferation of cameras.


Just one generation later, a new arrival from Dusseldorf, Germany took up the mantle of the Hudson River School. By this time, the Eastern seaboard had been well documented in artwork and so Albert Bierstadt pushed further West, capturing the public imagination with his vast portraits of the spectacular and untamed parts of the new nation.


Unlike the Hudson River painters, who meticulously painted exactly what they saw en plein aire, Albert Bierstadt was the subject of much controversy and criticism in his time for visiting places then returning home to his New York studio to paint them. He became well known for altering vistas and embellishing scenes. One prominent critic wondered aloud in the New York Evening Mail whether Bierstadt's 1870 picture 'Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast' was just another fantastic dreamland, or if it was indeed a real and accurate likeness of the place.


Bierstadt, whose pictures have always captivated me, diverged from the Hudson River School in a very important way--the accuracy of the picture mattered far less than the spirit of it. This spirit influenced policy and ambitions for decades to come. We need look no further than Bierstadt's successful lobbying for two commissions which now hang permanently in the United States Capitol Building.


I can only imagine the wonder and awe lawmakers felt looking at these works before their next session. Undoubtedly these images of the grandeur and promise of the American West, untarnished by the blood and controversy surrounding these places, influenced legal decision making.


So what does any of this have to do with me?


Albert Bierstadt, "Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast," 1870

All of this has much to do with my work and the forthcoming Fever Dream Collection (arriving autumn 2019).


We live in an era no less controversial and dynamic than the one which shaped Bierstadt's body of work. We are on the cusp of becoming a space-faring species. We are on the cusp of dramatic social upheaval in-part due to the rise of machine learning. Our mastery (or destruction) of the planet is imminent. We currently look back on Bierstadt's time and decry the xenocide of indiginous populations, the tyranny of colonialism and imperialism, and the hegemony of other social evils. Likewise I suspect future historians will look back on our present situation and wonder about the destruction of the environment, global income disparities, and the beginning of the Holocene epic.


It is also true that the role of the artist is to document, challenge, and respond to our shared struggles. At the same time, the role of the artist is also to question and inspire human consciousness.


Using my retrospective glasses I now understand there are indeed unifying themes in much of my work, no matter how different these works may seem stylistically.


As an artist I continue to dwell on reinterpretation of the past for contemporary audiences. The pop-culture inspiration behind the Inertia Collection is just one example. First I ran with a single idea (the inverse seriographs of Warhol), then devised a method (freezing a moment), then ending by pairing those works with well-known cultural artifacts (movie titles) to create a mood, not a depiction.


Alternatively, the rallying cry of the Celestial Saga and Planetary Ennealogy is justly ad astra per aspera: Through hardship, to the stars! These abstracts are my desire to explore the universe. Though I am still (unfortunately) earthbound like the rest of us, I still wonder in color about the roiling clouds of Jupiter or the seductive enigma of the stars and other celestial bodies.


Like Bierstadt, I am less preoccupied by the accuracy of my vision. It is about the spirit of that vision. That has been, and always will be, the heart of abstract art.


Finally, and perhaps most appropriately, my unusual preoccupation with horse imagery was particularly inexplicable. I have never really been drawn to the horse like most people are. As a child I was terrified of them. But the iconography (the cult) of the horse is undeniable. They are omnipresent in Western art and the epitome of the American West after 1800. My work with horse imagery has never been photorealistic. Rather, I am obsessed with reinterpreting the iconography for a contemporary audience so as to connect with the spirit of the picture.


I have come to learn that a horse is never just a horse. An abstract is never merely an abstract. I continue to surprise myself with an ever-evolving conception of the wider art world as well as my own art. I often find myself rolling back previously held views on various art movements, finding new merits in art of all kinds.


It only makes sense that my next adventure is a Fever Dream of color and iconography. Using readily accessible cultural artifacts, contemporary color schemes, and elements of the natural world, I seek to reinterpret traditionally bucolic imagery with the intention of challenging notions of identity and our place within the world. Social themes, personal empowerment, our relationship with our experience of reality (and the rejection of reality) all figure prominently into the wider language of this offering (among many other themes). It is absolutely necessary to draw on our shared history in order to design and inspire the future (and our conceptions of ourselves).


Of course, none of this is new (except to me). Everything old becomes new and we should celebrate it. We can only speculate what Old World traditions influenced Bierstadt as he was creating something entirely new and "dreamlike". Couple that with his unique experience of the world, the environment he was raised in, and all the other factors which make the human experience so richly satisfying, it's no wonder he was both criticized and lauded for the fantastic spirit of his work. I suspect if he lived in the Space Age, he too would say, "Ad astra per aspera."


Through hardship, to the stars.



Albert Bierstadt, "Pikes Peak," circa 1850

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