Rural Avant-Garde: The Mountain Lake Experience

Through Sunday, Dec. 30

The Gregg Museum of Art & Design, Raleigh

One could argue that much canonical twentieth-century American art owes its stature to a generation of artists that reworked Thoreau’s famous claim: “I went to the mountains because I wished to make art deliberately.”

The best-known example is Black Mountain College in Buncombe County, North Carolina. Between 1933 and 1957, it attracted the likes of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Ruth Asawa, Jacob Lawrence, M.C. Richards, and Buckminster Fuller. They taught a small student body, formed companies and collectives, and created work now housed and presented at major arts institutions around the world.

Black Mountain’s near-mythological status has propelled me, and many others, to study and ask questions about it, to humanize its undertakings and probe its context—and not just the intellectual exchanges in the art studio, but the whole constellation of its infrastructure. How did a community consisting largely of outsiders interface with people living in the rural town? Is progressive art-making possible in an assembly hall named after Robert E. Lee in the Jim Crow South? What did the North Carolina grass feel like on Cunningham’s feet when he danced outside?

I brought similar questions to an exhibit about another, more obscure mountain-adjacent arts enclave where academy and community mingled: southwestern Virginia’s Mountain Lake Workshop. In Rural Avant-Garde: The Mountain Lake Experience(originally organized by Longwood University’s Center for the Visual Arts), N.C. State’s Gregg Museum of Art & Design showcases work that emerged from Mountain Lake’s conferences and workshops, led since 1980 by Virginia Tech art professor Ray Kass and Virginia Commonwealth University art historian Howard Risatti at and around Mountain Lake, near Pembroke, Virginia. (The lake itself, which was also a filming location for Dirty Dancing, is now a dry basin.)

Like Black Mountain College, Mountain Lake has an impressive list of guest artists, with some crossover: Cage, Cunningham, photographer Sally Mann, sculptor Okura Jiro, self-taught multi-disciplinarian Howard Finster, and painter Cy Twombly. According to the exhibit’s minimal promotional text, Mountain Lake engaged these artists in “art experiments involving scientists, scholars, and local folks,” and the works included are concerned with “the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of art.”

Rural Avant-Garde is a testimony, in part, to the latter, but its curatorial attention to the former is less clear. For an exhibit that aims to celebrate art made through “overcoming the restrictions that emerge when art becomes only a commodity,” its reliance on flattened designations like “local folks” and “community” is curious. Compounded by the museum’s lack of context-building around Mountain Lake’s roots in southern Appalachia, this can sometimes make these art objects feel like, well, just objects—suspended in time, produced solely through intellectual exchanges in the art studio.

Wall text at least sheds some light on the mechanics of making. You get the sense that in order to construct these sculptures, paintings, and mixed-media pieces, artists and students had to move around, touch, and rearrange materials to figure things out. I’m reminded of the adage often attributed to Cunningham: “The only way to do it is to do it.”

One of the exhibit’s centerpieces is a gargantuan paper scroll representing a Cunningham-led iteration of STEPS, a 1988 Cage performance that Kass later adapted into a score. Participants dip their feet in ink and walk across paper, dragging a large brush saturated with watercolor. Two tracks form, overriding and sublimating each other, which materializes both the collective carrying forward of a movement tradition and the messiness of pinning it down.

I was also glad to see the inclusion of feminist conceptual artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who, since 1977, has been artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Ukeles’s body-size cart was originally used in her “Methanogenesis” workshop in 1994. Participants made blind drawings on bentonite clay, which is used to line landfills and seal buried nuclear fuel. You can picture a body inhabiting this artwork, refashioning this gurney-like vehicle as a creative conduit. The instruments feel immediately usable.

Rural Avant-Garde‘s emphasis on tools and methods of artistic production—on the “how” of art—aligns with modish institutional emphases on design thinking, interdisciplinary experimentation, and the mingling of the arts and sciences. But the exhibit’s object-focused approach exalts the individually named and already famous while papering over the contributions of Mountain Lake’s core participants, the “local folks.”

To categorically separate students, practitioners, workers, and families native to the Pembroke area—who we can only assume these “local folks” must be, because there’s little at the museum or online to tell us for sure—from artists, scientists, and scholars restricts art-making and intellectual activity to people favored by mainstream institutions and capital. And in what world are “local folks” not artists, inventors, scholars, and critics? Everyone is local to somewhere. “Guest artists” imprint the landscape, labor relations, and language of the places they visit, and vice-versa. Curatorial attention to this exchange is often a missing link in celebratory showcases of artwork produced in communities like Black Mountain College or Mountain Lake.

Mountain Lake’s website says that these conferences aim to produce art through shared experiences “rooted in place and locale—namely, the physical, historic, and psychic spaces in which people live and work.” This exhibit might have been more robustly framed to include that space, with maps of the area, interviews with or bios on non-famous participants, and other information or documentation about the context in which this work was produced.

Perhaps this is why I was most struck by “Pathways: The Appalachian Trail Frieze,” a wall-length walking-documentary project that emerged from Mountain Lake’s 1993 workshop with the U.S. Forest Service. Using chance methods, a central panel is collaged with participants’ black-and-white photographic images of flora in and around the Appalachian Trail—remembrances of what struck their attention while walking. Expanding outward in every direction are their tiny mounted drawings of the same natural features: edges of rocks, baby tree buds, intersections of twigs.

The work has a paradoxical effect: It’s anonymous, collective, and expansive, yet rooted in place, time, and careful individual noticing. Its representation of the ways in which creative exchange can propose new possibilities while remaining grounded in everyday realities—this is the “why” of art.