The title of David Opdyke’s environmental magnum opus, This Land, is a nod to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the 1944 folk song that some consider an alternative national anthem. Known to nearly every schoolchild, the song celebrates the grandeur of the American landscape and the sacred democratic notion that it belongs to all of us.
It's the title, but "it's also just a simple declarative statement," says Opdyke, whose work has appeared at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City and the Petit Palais in Paris. “This land, this is what we’ve got. This is it.”
The America he presents in This Land—a mosaic of 528 vintage postcards altered by his paintbrush and meticulously arranged—is not the one we want. Massive pipelines cut through the business districts of midwestern cities, icicles grip California’s citrus groves, plagues of frogs and flies fall from the sky, and freakishly large tornadoes gyrate in the corners. Weeds engulf treasured national monuments, and tentacled sci-fi creatures threaten the hydroelectric dams of the West. In the air above this terrestrial chaos, small planes circle overhead trailing banners with messages to “Repent now!” and “Fight the EPA!!”
Measuring 16.5 feet tall and 8 feet wide, the panorama tells its story in the saturated, welcoming tones of picture postcards from the early 20th century. Opdyke transforms the familiar format into a means of subversion. The monumental portrait is a wall of cozy Americana packed with details so disturbing you are apt to shudder. This dark and, in places, absurd vision is an environmental disaster area. It’s ours because we deserve it—first, for creating the conditions that make climate change a reality, and second, for failing to stop them.
This Land revels in nostalgia for a nation destined for greatness and filled with wonders—awe-inspiring mountains, caves, and other geological monuments; bridges, dams, and other feats of engineering; wholesome roadside attractions; and a mighty web of interstate highways that sew these sites together for the enjoyment of citizens touring in the family car. They all seem to embody national pride.
Art critic and author Lawrence Weschler spent time studying the many surprises that Opdyke has painted in a style that blends into the original hand-printed artwork. “You get sucked in and as minutes pass, ever slyer details emerge,” Weschler wrote in the New York Times. “Eventually you pull away, and the wider scene reverts to that bird’s eye pastoral sublime. Only now you realize the sun hovering above the distant horizon isn’t slowly rising; it’s fast setting.”
The artist set out nearly two years ago to place the consequences of global warming and climate change in locales between the coasts. By incorporating scenes from all over the country in an irregular grid of postcards that peel away at the edges to suggest a world coming unglued, Opdyke hopes to engage a wider audience than he has reached in previous politically motivated works, such as Suburbanistan and Pre-emptive Product Placement.
His interest in environmental issues stems from growing up in Schenectady, New York, where he watched the suburbs gobble up the woods that were his playground while the old factories downtown crumbled into brownfields. “It occurred to me that I should be delivering a message about global warming in a way that would mean more to more people and showing what could be happening—what is happening—where people live,” Opdyke says.
When presenting his work in New York City, where he lives with his wife and two children, he says, ”Basically, you're preaching to the choir and not getting anything to change.“ In contrast, he witnessed people studying This Land for an hour at a time when it was exhibited at the gallery of the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities in Ann Arbor, and other galleries across the country.
“After I had set a lot of things on fire and had my fun, so to speak, I started to think about how people would react to this kind of stuff—the fears, the expectations, the fear-mongering, the ‘I told you so,’ the profiteering,” Opdyke says.
Eventually Opdyke arrived at the idea of a blimp functioning as Noah’s Ark. He depicts the large vessel in various stages of preparation as it tries to make an escape from overwhelming environmental catastrophe. “Is the ark a religious response? Is it a government-sponsored response? Is it profiteering? I don't know, but I thought it was an interesting level of complexity,” he says.
Complexity is something Opdyke definitely achieves.
Visitors are free to explore This Land at will on his website. It will also be on view in the exhibition “Power: Empower” at the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks from April 24 to July 7.
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