“On the Road,” an exhibition curated by Jens Hoffmann at Artpace San Antonio, revisits canonical representations of the road trip, the southwestern American landscape, and enduring possibilities for self-discovery. Inspired by a trip that Hoffmann, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, undertook across Texas to conduct studio visits, the show aggregates depictions of the southwestern United States, revisiting these places in part out of anthropological interest. Works by 15 artists imagine mid-century Americana, and Hoffmann’s exhibition tracks a lineage that moves from straightforward curiosity at the country’s growing automobile culture, to increased formal attention and investigation of the terms of experience of site. Hoffmann updates this narrative with a critical look at the United States’ nostalgia for isolated experience in the context of metastisized commerce.
To counteract the romantic, masculine narrative offered by Jack Kerouac and his ilk, Hoffmann read Simone de Beauvoir’s America Day by Day and Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality, and quotations from these and other titles appear on the gallery walls. The exhibition is homage to the open road and the at-times idealized motif of journey-as-self-discovery, but it positions the individual within a larger natural sphere, one that is as threatening, stark, and sober as it is transcendent. In case you missed the message, Hoffmann hung Andy Warhol’s 5 Deaths on Orange (Orange Disaster) from 1963 at the entrance to the gallery; it’s a gruesome cautionary tale.
The majority of the show on view in Artpace’s Hudson (Show)Room—itself a former automobile dealership—is devoted to heavy-hitters of figurative and documentary-style photography of the southwestern landscape. Ed Ruscha bookends the exhibition, with his two books Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), featuring 26 photographs of gas stations taken on Route 66 between Oklahoma and Los Angeles, and On the Road (2009), an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s text. In between, New Topographics photographs, documenting human intervention into the landscape, dominate a mix of photographs taken from the 1930s until the 1970s. Stephen Shore’s color photographs of Chevron gas stations and car dealerships recall the color palette of American car culture alongside Walker Evans’ 1930s images of local roadside commerce. Danny Lyon’s images from 1962 and 1970 communicate the isolation and vastness of the open road, while Robert Adams’ images begin to abstract the vast and harsh landscape.
Works in the exhibition from later decades departs most decidedly from the dominant narrative of discovering American authenticity, and distill the experience across media. Five diminutive photographs from Catherine Opie’s Freeway series, picturing Los Angeles highways in the mid-1990s, reduce the grandeur of the interstate highways to function. Roger Kuntz’s color-block paintings of highway signage from his 1960s Signs series pivot the exhibition into formal experience of highway iconography, cropping the signs so shade, color, and line trump systematic legibility.
Hoffmann laces a playful personal travelogue through the exhibition and the catalogue, an unconventional document produced by Falk, a brand of German mapmakers. He’s installed artifacts from his journey in glass vitrines throughout, with narrative texts introducing the objects’ provenance and personal signifiance. A bottle of Dr. Pepper from the 1940s, we’re informed, was sold to Hoffmann by a vendor who seller claimed it was “the real thing” because it contained sugar cane, not corn syrup. A piece of tumbleweed stuck to Hoffmann’s car after a sandstorm and a rusted 1950s license plate found by the side of the road both make an appearance as artifacts that embody nostalgia the later artworks in the exhibition refer to, while positing it as an enduring curiosity.
Catherine Opie, Untitled #18 from “Freeway” series, 1994. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Catherine Opie