Oil. 48in. x 48in. 1983.
From a biographical perspective, we know little about Jack Ketner. He has lived and worked in North Carolina since at least 1983, and was represented by New Elements Gallery in the past. SAM acquired The Disappearing Farmer by purchase in 1983, following Ketner winning best-in-show for another of his paintings in a juried show underwritten by the museum in the same year.
Ostensibly, The Disappearing Farmer is a meditation on the statement made in its title; a statement which is especially poignant in the south, where historically agricultural areas have given way, over the last century, to various forms of industrialization, urbanization, and general decay. But the relatively straightforward sentiment of The Disappearing Farmer’s title is complicated by details the artist has painted into the fore- and back-ground. The title The Disappearing Farmer brings to mind the tradition of idealization and eulogy that the disappearing rural South has enjoyed for over a century…in painting, literature, poetry, film, and other artforms the idea of the “Old South” has appeared innumerable times. In these depictions, it usually takes an almost mythic form – altogether more congenial, preferable, orderly, and elegant than the South Americans now inhabit. Its surprising then, that although Ketner references this tradition he doesn’t engage with its usual visual trappings. The farmer Ketner paints, far from seeming noble, heroic, or elegant, as the archetypical farmer usually does in such art, seems mostly rather humble, quaint, and decidedly modern as well.
This leads one to ask what sort of statement Ketner is really making. Is he coming to the defense of the disappearing farmer, or just documenting him as he is? More questions are raised by the multitude of broken and damaged objects depicted in the background. If Ketner were glorifying or eulogizing the farmer, why paint him in what appears to be a junkyard? Even the trees are missing branches and leaves…only the farmer appears unschathed. Is Ketner’s approach satirical, in that he represents the farmer as an anachronism at the end of his usefulness, wherein the destroyed objects in the background foreshadow the future of his way of life? Or does his cheerfulness and wholeness amid the broken tools and objects surrounding his home symbolize his power of endurance, suggesting that he will outlast our age of urbanization?
Sometimes artists don’t provide a set of clues in their work that can be used to formulate one definitive explanation, defying easy interpretation. In these works, the viewer is challenged to create their own understanding of the artist’s intentions. Thus, one might say that the fate of The Disappearing Farmer is left up to the viewer, just as the fate of the real disappearing farmer depends upon our collective habits of consumption and environmental assiduity.
SAM is funded in part by The Arts Partnership of Greater Spartanburg and its donors, the County and City of Spartanburg, and the South Carolina Arts Commission which receives support from The National Endowment for the Arts.