“While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens ...”
These are the first lines of “Shine, Perishing Republic” by the modernist poet Robinson Jeffers. In it Jeffers envisions the United States as a civilization on the brink of collapse, as evidenced by its widespread corruption and cultural narcissism.
While these words were written almost 100 years ago, the same sentiment rings in today’s America, which can feel fragile and volatile, stubborn and hopeful, all at once.
And this is where Jackson artist Gisele Olson enters with “This America,” her second show opening this week at the Center for the Arts.
Using Jeffers’ words as a springboard, Olson altered vintage U.S. postcards to create darkly humorous narratives that unravel the material’s nostalgic, self-congratulatory mythos of “America,” both expanding on and questioning the poet’s vision — in particular, his poem’s culminating notion of escape and disengagement as responses to societal problems.
“I started working on the pieces that would become “‘This America’ at the beginning of 2019,” Olson told the New&Guide. “I didn’t begin with a specific focus or intention. For me collage is a medium that’s particularly well-suited to play and experimentation, both visually and conceptually, and that’s typically the starting point for my pieces. So I didn’t necessarily have a firm motivation in mind when I began the series, but it soon resolved itself into a way for me to think about and critique what I see as some of the more frustrating and reprehensible aspects of dominant culture in the U.S.”
In addition to exploring connections between collage and verse, Olson’s aim is to hold a critical lens to, and offer moments of hope for, a nation that one of our great poets prophetically saw as “settling in the mould of its vulgarity.”
“As I was making the first collages, the poetry of Robinson Jeffers came to my mind,” Olson said, “and it seemed like a really appropriate focus to center the work around. My aim since then has been for the collages to work in conversation with Jeffers’ 1924 poem ... and to offer food for thought on how the U.S. has or hasn’t changed since Jeffers wrote the poem a century ago, and how it might or might not change in the future.
“I hope that one of the things this exhibition does is to emphasize Jeffers’ work and the continued relevance, and necessity, of his thinking,” she said.
Olson received a Wyoming Arts Council Professional Development Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for “This America.” Her work is held in private collections across the United States as well as in the permanent collection of MERZ Gallery in Sanquhar, Scotland.
The poem in full will be available for viewers to read at the exhibition. ￼