Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rust Belt Romantic

No, it isn't a Midwestern thing. It is a Rust Belt thing. Rust Belt culture, that is:

Raised in Erie, Pa., Casey now makes her home in Cleveland, where she initially moved to attend the Cleveland Institute of Art. Following school and a brief stint of living in Chicago, she returned to the city and has referred to herself as a Rust Belt romantic.

"It's not too uncommon to find people here who sort of love the broken-down industrial history of the area. It's very bittersweet, which may be a Midwestern thing," she says. "There are people here transforming leftover remnants - old manufacturing commercial buildings into studios and apartments and other interesting projects. It's a pretty slow process, though I find a great deal of inspiration from the landscape."

Amy Casey is an artist, a painter, and the Rust Belt is her muse. Ms. Casey and I share a hometown. We share a landscape:

Casey has lived more than a third of her life in Cleveland, but she grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. The family home is in a quiet neighborhood, with a patch of sloping backyard above a shallow ravine and a creek. As you travel the two miles from there toward the small city's downtown area, the route is soon lined with decaying walls. Empty windows perforate time-abased late-19th-century manufacturing plants. Such sights are a fixture in the consciousness of anyone living at this end of the northeastern manufacturing economy's long ebb. Depression, recession and the lower costs of doing business elsewhere have stripped the flesh from places like this — Youngstown and Akron, Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit. Coldly framed for much of the year by the blank paper of off-white skies, they have their own desolate beauty, which many romantically inclined artists have photographed, drawn and painted.

Like them, Casey may be a closet romantic, but generally, her practical fa├žade is front and center. Her particular brilliance is to snatch all this visual material up like a child putting away a floor full of toys, stuffing it deftly into pictorial space with All-American, Dr. Seuss-meets-Rube Goldberg-meets-Edward Hopper combinatory panache. "There you go," she seems to say. "All done," and slams the door.

Except that Casey is very much not a child, and her motives aren't merely a matter of admiration for texture or atmosphere. Mainly, she is too pessimistically kind to pronounce facile judgment on the post-apocalyptic scenes she depicts. If anything, she's trying to shore up her native landscape, proposing impractical solutions (what else?) to insoluble problems.

Emphasis added. I am drawn to intractable problems. I obsess about them. But I never thought about that impulse as a romantic notion. I see beauty and hope in ruin porn. Some of my favorite paintings are the dreary city-scapes of Charles Burchfield. I'm romantically attached to the images. Childhood nostalgia, I suppose.

From Erie, my Rust Beltness stretched northeastward, not midwestward. Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, Schenectady, Troy, and on to similar cities in Massachusetts. This experience taught me that the Rust Belt is not the Midwest. Rust Belt culture isn't Midwestern culture. If anything, the Rust Belt has replaced the Midwest.

New England, Appalachia, and the Midwest have all fused together to form the Rust Belt. Try to forget the historical regional narratives you were taught in school. Really, the heart of it all is Cleveland. The spheres of Chicago and New York overlap in Ohio. That's where the Rust Belt gumbo is most apparent. Amy Casey seems to be at home there. I suspect I would feel the same way.


Tom R. said...

Great post, Jim. Did you ever visit Michael Garman's sculptures while you were in Colorado? The Burchfield city-scape reminds me of Garman.

Jim Russell said...

Whoa! That's a sculpture? I don't recall encounter any of Garman's work. I did see some Rust Belt resonance in the Colorado landscape. Loveland is a good example.

That Garman sculpture evokes the same romance and nostalgia oozing from Rust Belt cities.

Tom R. said...

Garman's work seems to be found mostly at his museum/gallery in Old Colorado City, near Colo. Springs. Definitely worth a stop if you're ever in the area. Wonderful ice-cream shop just down the street, too.

I agree, Loveland does have that Rust Belt resonance.

Richey said...

Great post Jim.