Twelve Views of Virginia
November 16 2014
To the wider world, Virginia is something of an enigma. The place might conjure images of colonialism, government bureaucracy or perhaps I-95 traffic, but compared to most any state from bayou Louisiana to flat Iowa to woodsy Oregon, Virginia is harder to pin down. It is officially Southern, but it’s a world away from the Deep South. It is an economic and political powerhouse, with a GDP larger than Argentina’s and divided, purple politics. Its history is rich and multicultural, but its colonial past ties it to a particularly English sort of Americanness—no doubt reinforced by its wealth of classical architecture and liberal borrowing of place names like Richmond and Suffolk and Winchester.
So, what is Virginia? In her new exhibition at the VMFA, artist Miwako Nishizawa suggests that it’s mysterious and bucolic and stately and above all, picturesque. Twelve Views of Virginia presents scenes from end to end of the Commonwealth in rich watercolor. Over a series of trips, the Japan native visited dozens of monuments, cities, universities and famous locales and took in the gamut of Virginia’s geography, from the Chesapeake to deep in the Blue Ridge.
In her gallery talk on opening day, she compared herself to Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lost in Translation: singular, disoriented and wide awake in an opaque foreign context. Compared to her current residence in Berkeley, Nishizawa suggests that Virginia is more culturally singular—rich in local traditions, but also more impenetrable to outsiders. She told of her experience listening to bluegrass, alone with her sketchbook at Floyd Country Store in the heart of the Blue Ridge. When friendly locals inquired about her trip, her thick Japanese accent and improbable “I’m driving around, sketching!” story only garnered polite nods. She told of the disorienting experience of having her car searched by guards en route to Cape Henry’s iconic lighthouses, only to realise later that she had driven right onto an active naval base.
Nishizawa’s panels do a brilliant job of communicating the, in her words, “comfortable isolation” she felt across Virginia. On the one hand, she was welcomed warmly everywhere. Yet, she remained ever so slightly outside, unable to entirely decipher the places and characters and codes she came into contact with. The works speak volumes about Virginia’s place as both driver and outsider in the homogenized 21st century world, its sprawling ticky tacky suburbs coexisting with its rich, well-worn patina.
More than any other element, though, it is the visual register in which Nishizawa represents Virginia that might add most to our collective perception. Despite being a place with a plurality of identities, imagery of Virginia icons has nonetheless been remarkably uniform—mostly conventional photographs or oil painting. So whether Nishizawa’s specific locations are familiar to you, their obviously American contents represented in her strongly Japanese style lend them an entirely new dimension.
Also on display are several of the artist’s sketchbooks, a few filled with iterations of the scenes that would later become the final panels, but others also offering more direct views into the artist’s introspective journey.
Catch Twelve Views of Virginia at the VMFA until March 29.
Special thanks to Suzanne Hall.