The 75-minute drive from the Twin Cities to St. Peter, Minn., is enough time to mentally slow down. Tall glass-and-steel buildings are replaced by hearty pine trees and rolling meadows. Speedy cyclists aren’t weaving through traffic. Instead, a furry deer might land its hooves on the highway.
This is the mind-set I drifted into on my journey to Gustavus Adolphus College to see “Oh My Heavens: Charles E. Burchfield,” a collection of 50 paintings and drawings by the early-20th-century painter and visionary artist on display at the Hillstrom Museum of Art.
Burchfield (1893-1967) focused his eyes on the natural world. “The Evening Star,” an oil-on-board painting from the mid-1920s, captures a plain at dusk. A few small ponds reflect back the trees, and the darkening sky is rife with blue, purple and gentle beige tones. A doe and her fawn quietly sip water while another deer looks on.
Burchfield creates magic from the world around him, rather than turning the world into a magical place, as the Surrealists did. In some instances, his use of holy-seeming light is reminiscent of the 19th-century Hudson River School painters.
The exhibit is organized rather traditionally in this modest basement museum, with paintings, wood engravings and drawings at eye level. The visual is interrupted only by the textual: A number of inspirational or religious-leaning quotations by Burchfield, printed on large pieces of white paper, pepper the walls.
A number of sketches are also included — too many, particularly ones that are just quotes or prayers he wrote down. The wall text becomes overwhelming, and too literal at times. For example, the undated pencil-on-paper “Untitled (Oh God!)” is just Burchfield’s writing of a prayer asking that the world’s beauty not distract him from the world’s suffering.
Displaying this gentle prayer shines more light on Burchfield’s way of thinking, certainly, while adding a religious element that befits the context: Gustavus is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the museum’s founder, the Rev. Richard Hillstrom, was a Lutheran minister. (An art collector and curator, Hillstrom owned two of the Burchfield works shown here, and once paid a visit to the artist’s home near Buffalo, N.Y.)
In a more secular art-world context, Burchfield isn’t referred to as religious at all. Instead, the words “mystic” and “transcendental” get thrown around. That’s a better way to think about works like the 1916 “Untitled (Haloed Moon).” An otherworldly water-and-graphite-on-paper piece, it shows the moon floating high above, encased in a shroud of gray, and yellow, purple and blue concentric circles, while the shadows of black trees loom on the ground below. Works like this make Burchfield’s art feel relevant to many emerging painters today — that sense of finding the transcendent in nature.
But it’s impossible not to notice the religious overtones in the series of wood engravings on another wall. “Cain and Abel” portrays the moment before Cain murders his brother; a pool of light shines down through an opening in the dark clouds.
Burchfield could easily come across as a purely religious artist to museumgoers who aren’t already familiar with his work, but he drew the attention of the wider art world with major museum shows during his lifetime at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art, and a 2009 solo show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. This touring show was organized by the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo.
Whether or not you decide to think of Burchfield as a religious artist, there is an undeniable spiritual presence in this show. The drive through the Minnesota River Valley also can be pretty transcendent.