On Objects: Susanna Bluhm’s Yosemite Family Portrait


Yosemite Family Portrait (2013) by Susanna Bluhm, part of A Place for Memory and Secrets, at SOIL Gallery

“If the geological marvels of Carlsbad Caverns came into being in the time before history, the Underground Lunchroom represents the time before arugula. Established in 1926, the lunchroom was renovated in the 1970s, and it shows. The food and souvenir stations are housed in sandy brown booths that remind me of the drive-through bank architecture of my childhood…Not long after the Bicentennial, middle Americans started eating better and dressing better and calling nature “the environment,” but the Underground Lunchroom is a throwback to our unpretentious if unenlightened past.” Excerpt from Sarah Vowell’s essay, “Underground Lunchroom,” in The Partly Cloudy Patriot.

The first time I saw Susanna Bluhm’s painting Yosemite Family Portrait, the image that Sarah Vowell evoked in her essay about the Carlsbad Caverns cafeteria almost immediately came to mind; the essay is the story of a lunchroom built within a National Park’s cave in the early 20th century that still exists today, despite involving a level of intervention into a natural site now frowned upon.  This may just be because so many national and state parks still seem to have the sandy brown, 70s architecture Vowell uses so effectively as a sign of America’s “unpretentious if unenlightened past,” but a similar tension between unpretentious and unenlightened America also inhabits Bluhm’s painting. The text beside it told a brief story of family trips to Yosemite that involved a cabin with twin beds, powdered doughnuts, and a gift shop with Native American drums and headdresses made of brightly dyed feathers. The flashy, contorted mound that interrupts the painting’s more traditional landscape fuses fragments of those memories into a pile that would stand in for the family, were this a snapshot.

Except, this painting is very much not a snapshot. The unstretched canvas mirrors the work of Albert Bierstadt in its expansive scale and subject, but pushes against most other attributes and attitudes affiliated works by the artist whose 19th century paintings of Yosemite are among the most famous of the era. Where Bierstadt emphasized a deep, sublime understanding of nature that was exponentially larger than humans, striving to represent its vastness to an audience unlikely to experience the American West in person, the depth of Bluhm’s Yosemite arises from its search for something personal within the landscapes so many others now visit and photograph themselves beside routinely.  Bypassing the pretensions embedded into the fraternal order of the Hudson River School, with its stylistic tendency to both intimidate and strike fear into the viewer (particularly in the case of Bierstadt’s work), Yosemite Family Portrait warms its subject with the familiar –the iconic view of Yosemite Falls, the flickers of souvenirs that everyone bought to remember the same sights, the overlapping stories of ambitious family vacations.

In other nearby text, Bluhm brings attention to the displaced Native Americans who once inhabited the lands of Yosemite. Souvenirs from 1980s-Yosemite that relate to this more buried story of the park sneak into the centerpiece of Yosemite Family Portrait, bringing to mind the same unenlightened American past that built the Carlsbad Cavern Underground Lunchroom; the drums and feathers may acknowledge Yosemite’s actual founders, but they still allude to America’s history of turning ceremonial, meaningful objects into tchotchkes.  It is this convergence of Americas –the America of Bierstadt’s oversized paintings, the America of the Underground Lunchroom, and the America of now, that looks back and sees all of these versions –that makes Yosemite Family Portrait so striking, and so true.