Saturday, February 23, 2013

Heavy Weather: The Dayton Art Institute Commemorates the 1913 Flood

April Gornik, Sea After Storm, 2010. Oil on linen. 74 x 77.5."
Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
The Dayton Flood of 1913 was one the worst natural disasters the United States had experienced. The hurricane that leveled Galveston, Texas, killing nearly a quarter of its population, had occurred thirteen years earlier as a single event. 

The Dayton disaster was a devastating succession of three storms from March 23-27. Temperatures dove from the sixties into the twenties after the first deluge, inhibiting the absorption of more rain. The entire episode dumped tropical levels of precipitation, drowning the city under three months of rain in four days and demolishing the system of levees that protected Dayton—a city below the flood plain—from the Great Miami River. Yet as a result of this disaster, private citizens contributed $2,000,000 to the Flood Relief Fund, which was the basis for the country's first flood Water Conservancy District. The 1913 flood was one of the greatest tragedies and recoveries of its era: Witness that this exhibition includes a commemorative booklet of photographs sold at the 1915 World's Fair to illustrate the impact of the notorious event.

The Dayton Art Institute's interlocking shows, Storm, Watershed, & Riverbank pull its community together once again to remember the tragedy and to commemorate the city's determined and unified recovery. The flood is a citywide topic this spring involving many local institutions and events organized through a website, 1913flood

Several things drew me to see this show, most of all the subject of a weather disaster. Since 1913 when Dayton was forced to conceive anew its natural environment and vulnerability to weather forces, America has been hit by many and more frequent weather disasters. How much can we still care about an event a hundred years removed when it feels that our world is hit constantly by weather catastrophes? Do catastrophes become normal and undermine our concern with the past?

The best thing about Storm, Watershed, and Riverbank is its conception as separate but linked shows, each with its own focus. Storm occupies one gallery of tremendous paintings by April Gornik picturing stormy weather in virgin nature. Watershed pairs photographs of Dayton during and immediately after the flood with current photographs of the same locations by documentarian Andy Snow. This exhibit arose from a book project, Snow's commission by the Miami Conservancy District to produce work resonant with the historical photo cache.

Riverbank concerns city planning and redevelopment, inviting viewer's visions for the considerable riverbank frontage of a city defined by the very water to which it is vulnerable.
April Gornik, Lowering Sky, 2010. Oil on linen, 25 x 30." Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
To include Weather itself as the first, central, and even neutral element in this commemoration of the flood struck me as brilliant. It's the decision that opened the show wide open for imaginative interpretation and linkage to all the wind and water since and to come. The documentary photographs were expanded for me by coming after Gornik's paintings.

April Gornik, The Horizon, 2008. Oil on linen, 76 x 76.25."
Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
Storm opens with an unusually small work for Gornik, her 2010 "Lowering Sky." The impact of this painting is infinitely greater than its modest size. The scene manages to be terrifying and exciting at once. It conveys swift movement in the clouds above trees massed like a stout gilded fortress.The brilliant edge and axe of clear sky could symbolize in its clarity the force of the storm rushing ahead to unleash itself. Will we cower then, or remain in a state of shaking elation?This view, like all of Gornik's work, is unpeopled. We are reminded that the weather and its effect on people are two different things.

Storm is an awe-inspiring show, filled with Gornik's landscapes that measure five feet or more in their smaller dimensions. Each places the viewer on a fantasy rise to survey majestic, cloud-delivered events upon the earth and water. In works like 2008's "The Horizon," stormy skies create what lies below them as if the land and ocean were thin mirrors for the beauty and power of the infinitely rising clouds. In many of her paintings, Gornik thus emphasizes the height of the clouds compared to the static flatness of the earth's surface. The earth lies and receives, the image suggests. The sky, however, is constantly forming, filling and emptying, rising, falling, acting on the immobile, passive earth below.

April Gornik, One, 1986, 72 x 98."
Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
The drama, size, and contrast in Gornik's romantic skies and storms invite us to the grand, universal feelings that almost inevitably anthropomorphize Nature. We read human thought and emotion into what is spectacularly not human. It's difficult not to read the painting "One" as a virtual benediction, as something with a holy message in its light breaking darkness, the clearing of a storm with hope. No matter how large, overwhelming, and unpopulated Gornik's landscapes, we see through them the difficulty of keeping human feeling—personal or religious—out of our visions of weather.

Gallery label detail, Watershed, Dayton Art Institute, 2013.
Camera of the show's period in use on the rooftop.
After Gornik's oil paintings in Storm, we are eased into Watershed's documentary photography by Andy Snow's informative exhibits about the processes of presenting the great storm. There are magic lantern slides, and an eye-opening display of the equipment and techniques used by the period's photographers. The latter removes any hyperbole from considering heroic the efforts of those who set out to record the event, given the immense size of the cameras, the cumbersome stationary setups, and the low probability of success for any single shot. 

1913 photograph #6 from Watershed. Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
Weather has no mind or emotion and is indifferent to humans, yet for humans few phenomena are so easy to fill with fantasy and emotion, or are taken so personally. Still, as I moved through the galleries of these photographs, I was interested that I reacted to them so clinically. Maybe I've seen too many pictures of weather disasters lately? Haiti, Japan, New Orleans, New York.

I found myself startled, too, by Snow's photos of present-day Dayton. I expected them to complete a narrative of phoenix risen from the ashes of disaster; of transformation from inundated calamity site to shining "city on a hill." This is not what one gets. 

Snow's photographs are beautiful for their saturated color, their composition, and exquisitely focused detail. They communicate that glorious sense of omniscience. Most were taken on days of brilliant blue skies and sunshine, circumstances that automatically improve the inner glow of any subject. (In response to my question about this, Snow told me that in 1913, most pictures were taken with orthochromatic film, which is highly sensitive to blue. The skies during a shoot may have been clear and bright, but the picture would print as the ubiquitous light gray that we know so well and that I am prone to read as an aspect of the misfortune.)

Andy Snow, Watershed #6, 2012. Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute. View corresponding to #6, above.
Snow studied photography with Sol Libsohn, one of the members of the great New York Photo League of the 1930s, documentarians par excellence. When we discussed this pair of pictures, numbers 6, he told me that he used to have his studio in the century-old building that has become an artists' building. The assorted buildings in the foreground of 1913 have been replaced by a diner-become-a-club. The tall buildings on either side of the street, which  might indicate commerce, are now low ones. Snow is a native of Dayton, but he brings a dispassionate eye even to such familiar scenes.
1913 photograph #18 from Watershed.
Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.

Another pair, numbers 18, similarly depict an underwater street that a century later appears to be less prosperous than it was in 1913. The building with the ionic columns was the original home of the Dayton Daily News, which continues to be the important local newspaper, but which has long since abandoned that building in favor of a remote printing site. The buildings across the side street, Snow and others told me, have not been razed, but exist beneath the unifying facade overlaid mid-twentieth century. I couldn't help but notice that this downtown scene was barely more populated than any of the flood scenes were. It was easier to imagine the bustle of the recovered 1913 street than to foresee a better day in 2013.
Andy Snow, Watershed #18, 2012. Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.

But herein lies the ultimate fascination of this show for me, and it's not what pulled me in to begin with. For me, the moral of the story is, "What you see here is what was and what is here."

Gornik's Storm seems to ask, "If storms occur and no one sees them, do they still affect us?" But we are necessarily painted in to look on, and we experience all the emotion that the painter has put there for us to reflect.

The documentary photographers ask no such question. The 1913 pictures are specific to Dayton, as the comparative photos highlight. "See that building still there? It's our town, not another."

Images of weather disasters appear today with almost overwhelming frequency. Yet as usual as they become on the one hand, running together in our minds, they document specific reality for individual people and places. 

The 1913 flood was a definitive event for Dayton. Snow's photographs of dry (even drought-parched) present-day Dayton are central to the commemoration of the flood because they emphasize the particular landmarks and identity of the city. 

1913 photograph #24, Watershed. Courtesy of the
Dayton Art Institute.
Still, independent of their century-old referents, Snow's images can be sorted, combined, and used for any number of stories: Documentary photographs are vessels into which we pour our own narratives. Fiction writers and news directors alike use documents as the basis for their stories.

So this interesting show at the Dayton Art Institute gives us a fascinating way to talk about the weather—as the Horseman of the Apocalypse, and as the forger of community; as the ultimate mirror of human emotion, and as the social leveler. 

April Gornik's imagination and Andy Snow's documentation work side by side to make a story of how one city's identity was born  of calamitous weather, and how the city survived both the flood and its founding narrative. But how you interpret the story is, of course, up to you. Light shines for everyone out of a different sort of sky.
Andy Snow, Watershed # 24, 2012. Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.

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