By breaking down a landscape into an elaborate mosaic of shapes and numbers, the paint-by-numbers canvas draws the painter into the spatial complexity latent in the productive landscape.
The influence of 19th-century picturesque landscape painting has had a lasting influence on landscape architecture in America. The framed perspective was central to Hudson River School landscape painting and picturesque landscape architectural traditions. Such perspectives used topography to frame a vista, a technique that is impossible when representing the flat landscapes that support the Nation’s highest rates of agricultural production. In the flat working landscape there is no foreground, middleground, or background. The landscape is compressed onto a single plane—accentuated by linear systems of roads, mechanically tilled earth, and crops planted in rows. The highly standardized and commodified spaces of contemporary agricultural production require an alternative form of landscape representation.
Many landscape architects working within this arena have turned away from pictorial representations altogether, turning to aerial imaging and mapping techniques that foreground landscape processes. While mapping and aerial imagery can convey the scale and territory of the hinterlands, they fail to capture an experience of the working landscape from within. The shift in scale required for territorial mappings others the working landscape as a space to be experienced and understood from afar. This has a tendency to homogenize local space and identity, defining the rural landscape as ecological repository or urban-industrial staging ground. Moreover, mappings often lack the narrative potential of perspective drawings that place the viewer at the center of the image.
Could an alternative form of landscape painting offer an alternative to both the romanticizing tendencies of the picturesque and homogenizing tendencies of mapping? The work presented here suggests that the paint-by-numbers tradition should be considered within the current evolution of agricultural representation. Numbered painting kits embrace dual principles of standardization and commodification, defining characteristics of 20th and 21st century agriculture.
The above images document an interactive paint-by-numbers exhibit highlighting the productive landscapes of the American Corn Belt. In peak growing season, the Corn Belt is the most productive place on Earth, boasting more photosynthetic activity than the Amazon Rainforest. While cornfields in the United States are more productive than ever, with increasing productivity has come a rapid decline in species and genetic diversity. Meanwhile, runoff from fields degrades waterways and aquatic ecosystems. These cultural and ecological dynamics of the American Corn Belt are not easily seen or understood. It is easy to drive through the cornfields of Iowa, Indiana and western Ohio and perceive nothing other than a monotonous flatness – devoid of the culture, wonder, and mystery. The Field Futures exhibit challenges this perception, telling a visual, tactile story about an often overlooked landscape.
As agricultural production has mechanized and cities have grown, fewer and fewer people experience firsthand the planting, growing and harvesting of crops. The Field Futures exhibit features 5 pre-planned, numbered canvases and a set of pre-mixed numbered paints. Each composition highlights a different strategy for incorporating ecological principles in conventional agricultural landscapes and practices. By breaking down a landscape into an elaborate mosaic of shapes and numbers, the paint-by-numbers canvas draws the painter into the spatial complexity latent in the productive landscape.
About the Team
Student researchers include Colin Martinez Watkins and Rachel Smith. The exhibit is made possible by generous support from the Knowlton School and the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation.