I Heart Appalachian Art: Between Chlamydia and Twang

by Diane Seuss

I stumbled upon Rebecca Morgan’s drawings, paintings, and ceramics a few years ago, in the way those of us who don’t live in big cities with access to galleries find art—on the internet. Even viewing them on a screen, robbed of their true scale, I was bowled over by their liveliness. Her art rises almost exclusively from her rural upbringing in the Appalachian region of central Pennsylvania and is focused on the human figure in a landscape of pines, grasses, wildflowers, cattails, and other signifiers of the world beyond culture. Still life components in the paintings and drawings—Cheetos, Big Gulps, sunglasses mirrored rainbow, Jell-O salads decorated like American flags, granny afghans, hunting dogs, corn on the cob, Mountain Dew—bring cultural debris in, perverse, comical, rapturous. Morgan’s figures are not just un-idealized, they’re purposely grotesque. Bodies are covered in zits and bug bites. Eyebrows aren’t just unplucked; they’re bushy as a cowboy’s mustache. Eyes are sometimes tiny on doughy faces. Teeth are yellow or green and as crooked as old tombstones. Women’s bodies are large, unshaved, tattooed, fingers capped with fake nails.

Given the shock of the images, it’s easy to miss Morgan’s technical and conceptual virtuosity, and her figures’ gestures toward prototypical poses in art history. In interviews, she expresses a love of Northern Renaissance painters, Flemish genre painters, folk and outsider art, and the “low” art of the cartoons she saw in MAD Magazine. Her newest work is tumbling further into the realm of the satirical and cartoonishly grotesque, clearly under the influence of one of her heroes, R Crumb. This work expounds on the stereotypical and ghoulish and shatters any homespun notions one might have of the rural. The outsized comedy of these paintings appears to me to be in balance with the outsized terror of living through the Trump era, and in particular, contending with one’s roots in what is called Trump territory—the domain of conservative rural white people. The earlier work is ambivalent but affectionate. The new work leans increasingly toward menace.

For the purposes of this essay, I am moving back in time a bit, to an iconic self-portrait, I Love New York (2011). The thick-limbed figure is naked from the waist down. Her breasts are free of a bra and sag a bit beneath the t-shirt. The hands are big, nails short—either bitten or clipped. Unruly, reddish hair streams over a shoulder. The expression is timeless, perhaps a little vacant, both at peace and stunned. The wonderfully-rendered pine boughs and grasses impinge on the figure. She hearts New York but she’s entrapped in the rural. Undoubtedly, if she were transplanted to New York she would be similarly trapped, an unsolvable conundrum. It’s a lonely thing, to fully belong nowhere, and loneliness breeds—or can breed—great art. This painting strikes me as a kind of ars poetica. It memorializes the artist who has set up shop at an untenable crossroads, and she’s haunted by it, but she does not fear your judgment or your gaze. She gazes back.

I Love New York
Morgan, Rebecca. I Love New York. 2011, graphite and oil on panel.

I see a similar aesthetic in Adrian Blevins’ poetry, particularly in her most recent collection, Appalachians Run Amok (Two Sylvias Press 2018). Born to a family with deep roots in Appalachian Virginia, raised by outsider/insider painters, Blevins’ poems likewise traverse the wobbly rope bridge between rural “naivety” and the urban art world and always, like Morgan’s paintings, are hyperbolic and feisty. Here’s “Poem with Attitude Wearing Red Flannel” in its entirety:

In other news, I’m happiest in the country going from place to place
in the early spring, looking for objects that are in my most humble opinion
not too hideous like this almost-translucent little Japanese bowl
and this not-quite pornographic sham Victorian thing. In cities I’m always
hot and restless as in kind of claustrophobic and a wee bit suicidal
as though I’m pregnant again and the emergent fetus is crushing
my vital organs again like it’s the 1980’s again and in order to make the owner
of a retail place just off the Lee Highway let me use the bathroom
I’ve got to boost my southern accent like actresses do in movies
featuring hair salons and diners because apparently filmmakers
know jackshit about southern girls except that they talk in a lilt
the filmmakers like to exploit because apparently filmmakers think
vowels sounds are sexy, which of course they are, so what I’m saying is,
being in New York or Chicago or LA is to me like having to pee
while driving on the highway in the 1980’s when you’re heavy with child
and have to stop at the Exxon to use what people call the facilities. But
unfortunately for you the facilities are locked, meaning now you’ve got
to pretend to the southern man behind the counter that you’re more southern
than even his very own Mama is, saying hon and bless your heart
and upon my word and all like that until you’re more cliché than the filmmakers
exploiting the actresses in the pigeonholing movies because that’s apparently
what’s required to make the fat redneck behind the counter hand over
the big key to your liberation in the nasty little bathroom where
you hope your impending child won’t get syphilis or chlamydia from the fixtures
or decide to join the Tea Party once grown because if there’s one thing
you don’t like more than a city, it’s a Republican, and anyway you’re actually
pretty country in actual reality in your red flannel shirt and big brown truck
going from yard sale to yard sale in the early spring singing twangy songs
to the robins and the hogs. So here in the fourteenth March of the twenty-first century
before the summer you turn 50 let’s please just remember that
plus the additional and equally important bonus fact of how you’re
finally sophisticated enough to end a poem by saying fuck you! fuck you! adieu!
to the haughty and shallow and scheming and affected in their sly white apartments
and fake feather boas, preferring evermore spring and the robins
and even the hogs heating up the old world again to a ruckus and fuss.

Blevins begins the poem (“In other news”) as if in the middle of a diatribe, and the tone and language proceeds in that vein. It’s breathless, filled with clauses, spoken—a storyteller running at the mouth. “I’m happiest in the country,” she tells us. “In cities I’m always/hot and restless as in kind of claustrophobic and a wee bit suicidal…” She compares this city-bred claustrophobia to being pregnant in the 1980s, needing to pee, and therefore having to stereotype herself with a cartoonized southern accent to get a store owner to hand over “the big key to [her] liberation” so she can use the bathroom. Her judgments fly and spin like locusts. The store owner is a “fat redneck.” She fears her child will get chlamydia or syphilis from the dirty toilet or grow up to join the Tea Party. Yet, in “actual reality” she’s pretty dang country, driving a truck, decked out in red flannel, and singing some twang to the hogs. So which is it? She’s “sophisticated enough to end a poem by saying fuck you! fuck you! adieu!/to the haughty and shallow and scheming and affected in their sly white apartments,” a conundrum in itself, to be sophisticated enough to say “fuck you” to the haughty white people. How wide is the gap between haughty and sophisticated? Between my white and yours? A thumb’s breadth? The poem finally sides with the “old world,” not the rural culture of the Tea Party but the rural landscape of hogs, robins, and spring. The actual reality below the reality of culture.

Blevins’ sensibilities pinball. There’s chlamydia and rednecks on one end, filmmakers who don’t know the first thing about the south on the other, flannel and trucks and robins and happiness on one end, and the misery of embodiment, pregnancy, the fake “hon and bless your heart” that it takes to relieve yourself on the other. Like Morgan’s figure, clothed on top, naked on the bottom, thereby halved, Blevins is split down the middle. What she ends up with is a whole lot of ruckus and a big “fuck you,” leaving her speaker stranded between chlamydia and twang. Both artists convince me that cultural exile can be an exuberant monstrosity.


Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, was released in 2018 by Graywolf Press. Four-Legged Girl, (Graywolf Press 2018) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open won the Juniper Prize and was published in 2010.

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