Every day I walk past an art gallery that has a selection of oil paintings of modern scenes: a city convenience store, a rowhouse, a highway gas station at dusk. It’s that last one that catches my eye every time and draws me in. Sometimes paintings create a world of sound, smell, and emotion with a few strokes. The gas station at dusk is, to my eye, the modern American pastoral scene. For a piece of art to evoke a sense of familiarity and emotion it must be somehow accessible to the viewer, so I argue that since most Americans aren’t familiar with 18th century English gardens, they don’t evoke in us the same emotions as those for whom it’s something that reminds them of grandmother’s garden as a child in Devonshire. As an American who has taken many long road trips, I’ve pulled into many gas stations off the highway, sometimes just as the sun has dropped below the horizon as violet and royal blue chase red and orange across the dome of sky, the heat of the day releases its grip and the sounds of crickets, the distant starting of an engine, and the serene rush of tires on asphalt create a sense of peace unique to America. I find this painting so peaceful every time I see it not because I love highways and gas stations but because it is, but for the anachronisms of setting, a pastoral painting equal to any Manet, Constable, or Cole. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, show you a picture of this painting, out of respect for the artist. But you can imagine the scene: fluorescent lights creating a small bubble of hazy white in the dusk, dusty fields and a broad horizon being inked in by a night sky as travelers pause for fuel and quiet before disappearing down the road.
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