By Jessica Borusky
The tenuous American imaginary of modernity/futurity is ripe at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Oklahoma plays a significant role within the historical trajectory of such narratives: the Trail of Tears, oil, the dust bowl, labor, natural gas, and the American caste system built on race and mis/fortune; an ever-failing promise toward some dumb financial luck with a stake.
The Philbrook Museum of Art has two campuses- the main campus, which was once the mansion of Waite Phillips (of Phillips petroleum) and the new downtown campus featuring contemporary artwork. While exhibitions are not always so distinctly tied together, this month’s Making America Modern (on view at the Philbrook main campus from February12-May 26th) and Joel Daniel Phillips’ It Felt Like the Future Was Now (at the downtown campus February 1st – May 19th) fall in concert with one another. Making America Modern showcases a slice of American history through varied visual, thematic, and interactive means rather than chronology, and it hauntingly calls attention to ways in which the turn of this century echoes and reverberates the last. Certain exhibition objects – turnstiles and deco homeware – boast embedded or (depending on the age of the viewer) nostalgic charms. Other works recall visual lexicons that are all too close to the now, both in terms of national rhetoric and geography. Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936) is an oil painting that seems to reference Courbet’s The Origin of the World, albeit in a barren fashion; I am still unpacking how deeply disturbing the Hogue painting is, not only in composition but in eerily topical ways. Throughout the exhibition, one feels a distinct pang of systemic geographical poverty and geological pain in the name of progress. In today’s Oklahoma, the e/affects of this rhetoric are sharply felt in the forms of unnatural earthquakes through natural gas extraction, state-wide education disparity, and leftover promises through halfway considered townscapes.
Oklahoma is not the only state whose soil will never recover from the rhetoric of progress: Joel Daniel Phillips’ (no connection to Waite) drawings insist on pushing the viewer’s relationships between narratives, facts, tactility, and the surreal through a series of photorealistic drawings from images found in the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. These images are specific to incidents of oil ruptures within California and official language used to tout relationships between the picturesque and progress. Due to the context of drawing, the images feel as though they’ve been collaged, concocted, composed. However, upon reading didactics and realizing that source material comes from archival photographic footage, the viewer begins to unpack the where/how/why: a fustian governance surrounding inherent dangers of oil production. If the Philbrook main campus offers the viewer intellectual distance from the thick and oozing content within the exhibition through interactive moments of pause and museum didactics, Phillips’ work undermines that distance by way of offering a wrenching-sublime in his meticulously rendered pieces alongside historical description. The exhibitions in conjunction with one another become a deftly evocative exercise as Phillips’ drawings create a collision of past/present socio-political and economic campaigns, of exacted/extracted and collective pain.
Jessica Borusky is the artistic director at Living Arts of Tulsa.