Roger Medearis: Obsession with beauty with regional lines

If you wait long enough, fashion will recycle and if you have a chance to see a “Roger Medearis: His Regionalism” at the Huntington Library in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art (Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing) until 17 September 2012, you’ll be glad that Medearis didn’t lose his optimism. Just look at his 1996 oil painting, “Home in the San Gabriels” below.  Regionalism was a modern art movement that was popular in the 1930s but fell out of fashion and even into infamy.

“Home in the San Gabriels,” 1996. Oil on linen canvas.

Based in the Midwest, Regionalism was popularized by men like Grant Wood of Iowa, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Steuart Curry of Kansas. This so-called Regionalist Triumphate brought American rural scenes into the art world, perhaps to comfort people who lived under the dark economic burden of the Great Depression. While you might not have heard of Regionalism, you’ve seen it. Wood’s “1930 “American Gothic” which resides in the Art Institute of Chicago is an American icon that is often parodied.

“American Gothic” by Grant Wood. 1930.

The name “American Gothic” (left) comes from the Gothic Revival style cottage you see in the background (note the medieval pointed arch) and in front, Wood’s painted his sister Nan (1900-1990) and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby (1867-1950).

Besides paintings, Curry was known for his murals. Curry’s paintings were less static and recorded scenes of Midwest life such as his 1929 “Tornado Over Kansas” where a family is about to take refuge in a tornado shelter as you see a great twister in the background.

“Tragic Prelude” by John Steuart Curry.

Curry painted a mural of John Brown, “Tragic Prelude.”

“Tornado Over Kansas.” John Steuart Curry.
“People of Chilmark” by Thomas Hart Benton.

It was, however, Thomas Hart Benton (15 April 1889-19 January 1975) who influenced Roger Medearis. Benton came from a family of politicians but preferred to follow his art muse. He worked as a cartoonish for the Joplin American newspaper before enrolling in the Art Institute of Chicago. He left to study in Paris and was introduced to Synchronism, an American avant-garde movement which used color arranged like notes in a symphony. When he returned to New York in the 1920s, Benton began to paint in a representational, naturalistic style, but you can still see stylized lines that have a certain rhythmic appeal in his 1920 “People of Chilmark.” (below) Besides scenes from the Midwest, Benton painted scenes of New York City, Martha’s Vineyard, the American South and the American West.

Roger Medearis was born in 1920, the son of a Southern Baptist minister. His family moved around as a result of his father’s work and the family stayed in parts of Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Roger Medearis: The Places He Knew Best
“Self-Portrait” by Roger Medearis. 1938.

Medearis became a student of Thomas Hart Benton after he enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute in 1938. (To the right is Medearis’ self-portrait from 1938) Benton was  well known by that time having been on the cover of Time magazine in 1934.

Benton also taught Jackson Pollock who famously commented that Benton’s art gave him something to rebel against. Benton left the institute after making a homophobic comment in 1941.

That same year, as the U.S. entered World War II,  Medearis drew Navy charts and eventually enlisted in the Army. When he was discharged in 1946, he moved to Connecticut and has several successful solo exhibits in New York. But change was on the horizon. Surrealists and Abstract Expressionism became popular.  Noted art historian H.W. Janson in 1946 compared regionalists to the kind of art that the Nazis had attempted to popularize. Yes, art students, that Janson…and if nothing else, this exhibition is proof of how wrong even well-respected art historians and critics can be.

Entering the Huntington exhibit, you won’t bother to ask yourself if Janson was right. More likely, you’ll marvel at the 1996 oil “Home in the San Gabriels” that the exhibit (curated by Jessica Todd Smith) uses both as the cover art of its brochure and the introductory painting.

The exhibition does have a bit of Hollywood glamour, funding comes from the $1 million gift from actor-writer Steve Martin gave to the Huntington in 2005 as well the Susan and Stephen Chandler Exhibition Endowment.

“Native Oak” by Roger Medearis.

This small exhibition shows the great breadth of Roger Medearis’ works with 36 pieces. You can compare his student self-portrait to his 1990 self-portrait and see how Medearis’ style changed. You can also see obsession and economics at play. Four examples of his series “Farmer Takes a Wife” are on display–graphite on paper in 1940, egg tempera on board in 1941, lithograph in 1989 and hand-colored lithograph in 1989. “Native Oak” originally graphite on paper in 1979 was made into a lithograph in 1981.

In “Farmer Takes a Wife,” you can see that Medearis has a bit more humor than Wood. His couple are definitely not comfortable with each other. The bright colors of the original become muted in the hand-colored lithograph. Did this make those lithos easier to sell and fit into any decor?

“Farmer Takes a Wife” by Roger Medearis.

The benefit of making a lithograph is by pulling editions, you have more works of art to sell.  Economics is always a concern for artists and was one of the reasons Medearis stopped working on art and joined the rat race.

Medearis’ art fell out of favor in Post-World War II America, and he also moved away from Regionalism, painting a series of still life studies. By the end of the 1940s, his marriage was also troubled and he went to re-visit his roots in Missouri and his works show farmhouses in the bleak Missouri winter. The exhibit shows detailed paintings and quick painted sketches from this period.

“Godly Susan” by Roger Medearis.

Economics and his divorce forced him to give up his art. He began working as a traveling salesman and relocated to California with his new wife, Judith Dettling whom he married in 1958. He wound up working at Container Corp. of America in Los Angeles. But art called him and he converted his garage into a studio Monterey Park.

His Regionalism came to Southern California. You can see that in the 1998 “April Hillside” where great fields of yellow mustard glow below a gorgeously blue sky with a small group of clouds. Venturing into the countryside of Southern California was something Betty, his third wife and widow, takes credit for. “I would drive and  he would tell me where to stop,” she recalled. Medearis’ second wife died in 1975 and he married Betty Burrall Sterling in 1976. She knows where that field of yellow is and still walks around there. “I brought some color into his life,” she explained. Eventually, Medearis went back to art full time and did well enough to move to San Marino where he died.

Indeed, you can see how at a certain point Medearis favored muted tones and then returned to color. His later works are intensely detailed and this is the kind of art you need to see in person. Move close to see all the details. “April Hillside” is made up of small strokes, almost like the small dots used for photo printing. Yet these are layered and vary in transparency.

According to Smith, Medearis would use photography and slides to piece together his work as well as making smaller studies. He also used other methods for making studies such as the painted bronze “Rio Chama” (1985).

Sometimes I wonder if our values in Western art isn’t skewed toward scandal. Do we want our artists to be people who live life on the edge? Is their art a reflection of their lives, their obsessions and their weaknesses? Or is their art a reflection of the lives we want to vicariously live, like art critics are Walter Mittys?

Certainly bad boys like Paul Gauguin (deserted his family to cavort with exotic women), Pablo Picasso (misogynistic man with a taste for younger women) or Jackson Pollock (hard living) make for better copy in the gossip columns than someone who lives his life as a hard-working family man.

Yet the kind of art that comes from a man who had many friends, who according to his wife was kind and humorous, is a reflection of what man and his nature. When Medearis died in 2001, he left behind a son, four stepdaughters ad grandchildren. Shouldn’t we value the art of a man of good values? Looking at Roger Medearis’ work I don’t see Fascist values. I see patience, lyrical beauty and a focused steady vision of the America. Did being a good family man or woman every go out of style?

“Roger Medearis: His Regionalism” continues at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA 91108.

N.B. I included works from other artists in this article only to show Medearis’ influences. 

Related Programs

Book Series: American Regionalism
May 23, June 27, July 25, and Aug. 29 (Wednesdays) 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
Join facilitator Judith Palarz for this four-part book series that will explore the uniquely American landscape through the writings of authors Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck. This series will also include a curator tour of the exhibition “Roger Medearis: His Regionalism.” Members: $85. Non-Members: $95. Registration: 626-405-2128.

Curator Tour: Roger Medearis: His Regionalism
July 11 (Wednesday) 4:30–5:30 p.m.
Join curator Jessica Smith for a private tour of the exhibition “Roger Medearis: His Regionalism” and gain insights into this uniquely American artist who was passionate about painting the places and things he knew best. Members: $15. Non-Members: $20. Registration: 626-405-2128.

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