Palm Springs lies at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains in the Coachella desert of Southern California. The sprawling resort town was the preferred getaway for the stars of Hollywood’s golden age. After the War, it became a fashionable laboratory for a modernist architecture. Richard Neutra’s Kauffmann Desert House (1946) inaugurated a vogue for geometric open-plan villas whose floor-to-ceiling windows captured panoramic views. A foreground with swimming pool, palm trees and cactus gave way to the epic vista of desert and mountains beyond. Palm Springs presents an artfully constructed cinematic utopia.
The formidable sweep of the American sublime is a world away from the picturesque, temperate landscapes and cloudy skies of coastal Devon, where Rex Southwick was born a quarter century ago. No more does it resemble the grey Northern industrial cities where he studied, Liverpool and Leeds. Such antitheses, geographic and cultural—the contrast between here and there; now and then; us and them; old world and new—structure the painter’s artistic project, just as they did the work of travelling artists of former eras, from the picturesque watercolourists of Britain’s age of empire to David Hockney, another young Englishman, who headed to California in the 1960s.
Yet it is social, rather than topographical, contrasts that lie at the heart of the important series of canvases that Rex Southwick has titled Topia. The term originates in the Greek “topos”, meaning “place”; Roman villas were decorated with frescoes of landscape scenery also known as topia. Southwick is interested in such genealogies in word and image, but his use of the term topia is ultimately political. Utopia was the title of Sir Thomas More’s humanist fable of 1516, in which explorers discover an island in the New World where rational and egalitarian principles have been followed, producing an ideal society. [Fig. 1] William Morris retranslated the term into English, as “nowhere”, in the title of his prose romance, News from Nowhere, in 1890; modern life, he despairingly claimed, will only reach an ideal form through revolution. In Palm Springs, Rex Southwick chronicles a landscape that balances on a knife-edge between the idyllic and the hellish, between utopia and its inverse, dystopia.
Whereas in earlier work Southwick located visual sources for his paintings through digital searches, producing art through acts of appropriation and collage, the present series draws on embodied, human experience. He spent many months living in Palm Springs and these works, like those of a war artist, offer us an eyewitness account from the front. He used the digital camera to create a documentary archive, which he treated like a sketchbook to be mined for motifs. In Palm Springs Southwick did not spend his time with the patron class, looking at the landscape through picture windows from within, like Turner at Petworth House. Rather, he worked with small-scale, family-run landscape installation companies and construction crews. This allowed him to observe the private homes and gardens of the wealthy elite from a perspective of alterity, from below stairs. The true subject of his Topia paintings is the labour taken to sustain the idyll, the skill and graft of the usually invisible figures in what (in a famous account of Gainsborough and Constable) the critic John Barrell called The Dark Side of the Landscape. Class hierarchies take compositional form in the Topia series; in Kauffman House, two gardeners occupy the foreground. Neutra’s sheet metal, glass and Utah sandstone masterpiece appears to rest heavily on the shoulders of the man on the left, a modern Atlas.
Southwick insists that the work of the artist as observer of society, as well as of nature, is urgent indeed. While a student, Southwick developed “a fascination with observing people at work” and “developing a narrative around them;” while a student at Leeds he took a job at a stall in the market two days a week, from five to eight in the morning, a participant observer, anthropologist and artist. In this he followed in the footsteps of Harold Gilman, the pioneering English modernist, whose Leeds Market, c.1913, notable for blocks of free-floating colour that refuse indexicality, is a distant precursor of Southwick’s larger and more exuberant productions. [Fig.2]
To reveal, in paint, the functioning of political, social and economic inequality in real time is important for Southwick both as a political statement in the present and as a matter of historical testimony, especially at a moment when digital manipulation threatens to undermine the truth value of the image: “I believe,” he writes, “it is very much the job of the artist to present work that is indicative of its time of conception and so in future providing a perspective which is accurate and grounded on observation and situation.” If these are landscapes, then, they are also history paintings, ambitious figurative works, self-reflexively grappling with the large questions of our era.
The workforce that sustains the “American Dream” in Palm Springs is made up, largely of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) men and women: a majority of the staff working in construction or maintaining pools and yards are Latino men. There is a perception by white residents that this workforce is made up of “immigrants;” but as Rex Southwick notes, among them are “many Native Americans, whose ancestors called the Coachella valley home for millennia.”
In Planting the Flag Southwick confronts issues of nation and belonging through deft art-historical reference. Two labourers are installing what appears to be a Mexican Fencepost cactus, not a species indigenous to Palm Springs. They position it reverently, just as (Southwick explains) “you might see depictions of flags being planted in American etchings and paintings from past wars”—a more aggressive act. Joe Rosenthal’s famous (and possibly staged) photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945; Fig. 3) belongs in this lineage, which reaches back to John Trumbull’s imagery from the American War of Independence. Already rich in irony, the composition also alludes to Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers (1849, destroyed in World War II, Fig. 4), the defining work of French Realism and shibboleth of the social history of art. Nodding to Courbet throughout the Topia series, Southwick refuses to allow us to see the faces of the workers. Rather, we view them as capitalism does, seeing only human machines. Like the owners of the swanky properties that swim into view about them, we, the privileged viewers of paintings, fail to acknowledge the individuality of the workers who sustain our lifestyles. The heroic scale of these figures, seen in movement, betrays Southwick’s admiration for another work of nineteenth-century Realism which balances pathos with the heroism of brawny hardworking men stripped to the waist as they plane a varnished floor: Gustave Caillebotte’s Les raboteurs de parquet, 1875. [Fig.5]
While he sees the inequity of current social hierarchies, Southwick does not offering a critique of the act of gardening or cultivation as a practice; indeed, he is himself interested in questions of landscape design. The painter greatly admires the vibrant traditions of English gardening, even as he acknowledges that imperial networks made possible the painterly parterres and herbaceous borders of a Gertrude Jekyll. Topia, he reminds us, is etymologically linked to topiary, the artifice by which trees or hedges may be teased into sculptural shapes. Yet he also notes with interest the effect of progressive legislation in California, rewilding areas that were once cultivated, in an attempt to redress water shortages and land erosion.
Each painting in the Topia series stages a potential confrontation. The art of the present confronts that of the past, demanding: who did all the work? Upon what base is the superstructure of leisure and pleasure erected? What price beauty? However liberal its discourses, the picture-postcard world of Southern California rests upon exploitation, benefiting from the operations of racial capitalism. Will the rebellion portended by William Morris ever come to pass?
Ultimately, however, the Topia paintings are complex aesthetic works rather than examples of political sloganeering. Southwick works on a monumental scale, using only the most canonical medium and support, oil on canvas. While the paint is applied with an energetic old-masterly gusto, his palette responds to more recent provocations. The vibrant purples and yellows, over a scorching pink ground, suture the saturated hues of the digital world with the violent, unrepentent colourschemes of the German Expressionists, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The results are often productively unstable. In Kauffman House does the explosion of pink and purple in the mountains represent a sublime sunset; or could it suggest the onset of a millennial judgement as in the work of John Martin? The Californian forest fires of recent years have come close to an Old Testament conflagration.
The Topia series offers a revisionist intervention in the long history of landscape painting, utilizing bravura brushwork to reveal the paradoxes implicit in the genre since the Romans inaugurated it with their own foundational topia. Southwick’s Topia announces the arrival of a major talent, one prepared to insist that the defining genre of Anglo-American painting—the sublime landscape—must confront its own economic and ideological underpinnings at this moment of global reckoning.