Ellen Harvey’s ‘Disappointed Tourist’ exhibit shows the power of postcards



One of the images in Ellen Harvey’s “The Disappointed Tourist” exhibition. (© Ellen Harvey)

Chances are, you haven’t gotten a postcard in some time. But it wasn’t so long ago that they were a choice method of long-distance communication, available on revolving racks at tourist locations all over the world. In the eons before Instagram, the humble postcard was a cheap and ubiquitous FOMO facilitator. If you got one from a friend in Crater Lake or the Santa Monica Pier, that meant that she was living it up somewhere, and you were not. A strategically sent postcard represented more than a letter from the road. It was a boast in rectangular form.

Painter Ellen Harvey knows all about the peculiar power of postcards. She is aware of the globetrotters’ cool that accrues to the sender: the way that the postcard, in its brevity, testifies at once to the traveler’s sensibility (she is thinking about you), her adventurousness, and the limited time on her busy schedule. Harvey also knows about the caché that postcards bring to the towns, cities and landmarks they advertise. If a place makes it to the front of a postcard and a traveler thinks enough of it to buy it and send it to a friend, that is proof of a locale’s significance. As destination marketing goes, it is hard to find something more direct — or more effective.

In her “The Disappointed Tourist” exhibition, Harvey drops the viewer into the middle of the postcard rack. Harvey’s version of the prefab epistle is way too big to jam in a mailbox — it’s about the size and shape of the front of a microwave oven. But when you stand in front of them, there is no doubt about what you’re looking at. Harvey’s paintings capture the aesthetics of the postcard right down to the colors, the particular fonts, and the sweeping, brochure-ready camera angles. She has mounted hundreds of them on the walls of the main exhibition space at the Rowan University Art Gallery & Museum. There they will hang through March 9, surrounding visitors with entreaties to visit far-off places: three solid walls of solicitation, speaking the honeyed voice of the travel agent. (Harvey will host a presentation and meet-and-greet in the gallery, March 9 at 1 p.m.)


Ellen Harvey’s “Atlantis.” (© Ellen Harvey)

The most notable thing about Harvey’s postcards isn’t what they look like, it’s what they advertise. “The Disappointed Tourist” is dedicated to images of places where we can’t go — because we’re prohibited, or because the attraction has been destroyed, or because it never existed in the first place. Sometimes Harvey is cheeky about this, flashing us tourist postcards from Atlantis, Mohenjo-Daro and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Sometimes she is as wistful as a returnee to a transformed hometown, lamenting demolished churches and storefronts of beloved shops like Manhattan’s lamented Other Music and Kim’s Upground. (Blockbuster Video is here, too, but its postcard portrayal, complete with a Closing Sale banner, feels uncharacteristically pitiless.) And sometimes Harvey is downright caustic, juxtaposing the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem sacked by the Romans in 70 A.D. with images of the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by Taliban fundamentalists.

Eco-apocalypse haunts Harvey’s visions, too. The Chacaltaya Glacier, which has retreated from the top of the Bolivian Andes, waves goodbye from the walls of the gallery. The Great Barrier Reef, blasted white by ocean heating, looks hale on the gallery wall. One postcard, dated 1907 — Harvey is scrupulous about made-up dates — commemorates the World Before Plastic with a bucolic forest scene.

The sting of fresher disasters is sharpened by Harvey’s presentation. The World Trade Center, for instance, is right next to the Grenfell Tower, and right beneath a blithe depiction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, burned in 1921 by a racist mob. All of these images of lost places are tourist-ready, friendly, Chamber of Commerce-approved, and without a trace of the tragedy that the names suggest. Harvey paints the pictures as they might have been. We supply the trauma.

It is arresting to see anodyne images of places where cataclysmic events occurred. But “The Disappointed Tourist” is more than just an exercise in heavy irony. It is a meditation on that which has been taken away, and a testament to a curious kind of permanence — the kind that postcards preserve.


Ellen Harvey’s “Cluny Abbey” (© Ellen Harvey)

The collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 could not erase the buildings from our memories. The Temple of Baalshamin may have been destroyed in the Syrian Civil War, but millions of people who were aware of the ancient holy building continue to see it. Even an ancient house of worship like the Cluny Abbey, victimized by vandals in The French Revolution, still exists in the popular imagination. When we think of these structures as they were before they fell, it’s usually the postcard image we’re summoning for ourselves: the building as an icon, a locus of interest and a representative stone of a city, or a culture, or a civilization. The postcard may have told our friends that we had visited a historical site, but it also meant that we had engaged with that site in our minds. Once that happens, it’s part of our interior landscape, and even physical upheaval can’t dislodge it.

“Way Finding,” an exhibition of winsome recent work by the painter Caroline Burton, makes a similar point in a subtler manner. Burton is an investigator of interior landscapes, and that which might linger in a traveler’s mind after she is done looking at the map or out of the window. Many of the big, beautiful paintings on view at Burton’s solo show on the second floor of the State Museum in Trenton feel like afterimages — patterns, paths, details both organic and man-made that constitute the deep structure of what we see when we look at the world around us. Burton has even based two of her tapestry-like paintings on the look of the museum itself, mimicking the rhythms of its columns and the mid-’60s jet-set quality of the architect’s design.

“Towers II (Incarnation)” by Caroline Burton.

At first glance, the work in “Way Finding” may not look to you like paintings at all. Burton has committed acrylic to sheets of canvas in a manner that mimics the feel of worn textiles, or tire treads on dirt roads, or animal skins. An overwhelming feeling of the outdoors radiates from Burton’s pieces — even the ones that, upon closer inspection, have been meticulously assembled in a studio. “Towers II (Incarnation),” a grand, haunting visitation in black and grey, seems at first like yarn, stitched, as loose as a fishnet, into a rug-like backdrop. “Framed” could be a couch throw that has been artfully run over by a team of swerving bicyclists. “Plain II (Incarnation)” looks like a charcoal rubbing of a manhole cover done with a golden crayon on a piece of stretched vinyl.

Yet none of these are anything of the sort. Instead, Burton is able to capture traces of the physical world with her paintbrush, and extend what she has seen over beautiful pieces that sometimes approach the size of bedcovers. Even the smaller pieces use repetition and immersion to appear bigger than they are. In more than a couple of the pieces in “Way Finding,” thousands of small marks on loose canvas evoke the sweep of a plowed field seen from above.

No matter how minute Burton’s brushstrokes become, she never loses sight of the map: One amalgamation of color fields coheres into a wall-sized impression of the Four Corners states. It isn’t a postcard. But it does what a postcard does. It connects the viewer with the idea of something that exists in geographical space. And when they are presented right, ideas stand taller, and firmer, than walls ever can.

Ellen Harvey’s “The Disappointed Tourist” will be presented at The Rowan University Art Gallery and Museum in Glassboro through March 9; visit sites.rowan.edu/artgallery.

“Caroline Burton: Way Finding” can be seen at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton through March 31; visit nj.gov/state/museum.

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