One of the most striking qualities to the contemporary eye is Homer’s naturalism, and the absence of nostalgia or sentimentality of any sort in his depiction of ex-slaves and farmers, giving the paintings an air of Yankee candor and individualism. But Homer‘s eye is closer to Manet than to Grandma Moses -- his alteration of the imagery in works like 1876’s The Watermelon Boys and Answering the Horn (not to mention his juggling of the aesthetic demands of the public, collectors, critics and his own vision) suggests a keen awareness and careful manipulation of the subtleties and limits of pictorial communication. Homer‘s perennial critical clashes over the unintelligibility of his paintings -- due to a flattening of perspective, distortion of figures and loose brushwork -- mark him as a proto-Modernist, constantly pushing, in a elegantly diplomatic way, to expand America’s ability to understand abstraction and the subjectivity of human experience.
The exhibition itself adds even more narrative complexity to Homer‘s oeuvre. The framing of the show in terms of contemporaneous critical reactions (pithy examples are included with most of the paintings here) draws the narrative of Homer’s gradual acceptance as a bona fide American master to the surface. Homer‘s negotiation of the social demand for a representative of a nationalist aesthetic in the era of the floundering Reconstruction and the American Centennial is made a much richer and more complex story, and a masterwork of social sculpture. Having achieved his goal, the never-garrulous Homer retreated to Prouts Neck, Maine, to paint the intense Japanese-influenced seascapes that solidified his reputation as one of America’s first world-class homegrown artistes.
Where Pettibon‘s early book works satisfy our hunger for picture-stories while throwing a post-modern monkey wrench in the gears of a fatally corrupted semiology, Homer’s life and career follow a paradigmatic modernist dynamic, ambitious and progressive, charting a journey from illustrative documentary narration to the chronicling of an archetypally charged, visually abstract inner narrative. “Winslow Homer and the Critics” presents the middle slice of this overarching narrative, a period in which Homer created his most popular and populist imagery, visually exposed America to Modernist ideas, and set the course for both American painting and commercial illustration for half the coming century.
Pettibon‘s my blackouts from console, heal, or depict, August 1984