The white clapboard meetinghouse with its towering steeple is an icon of New England’s architecture and art, appearing often in paintings and photographs that depict it at the heart of the region’s small towns. The upcoming exhibition “Nothing More American” at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., brings together depictions of Old Lyme’s renowned First Congregational Church by 19th– and early-20th-century painters such as Childe Hassam with photographs by contemporary artist Matthew Leifheit that contemplate the meetinghouse’s evolving symbolism.
Nothing More American: Immigration, Sanctuary, and Community—An Exhibition by Matthew Leifheit, is on view September 28, 2019 through May 24, 2020.
In the summer of 2018 Brooklyn-based photographer Matthew Leifheit provided photography for an article in The New Yorker about a Pakistani family who sought refuge from deportation between May and October 2018 in the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. “Nothing More American” uses these photos as a starting point to consider the intersection between the fraught topic of immigration and the history of the Old Lyme church as an icon in American art.
Once a symbol of New England colonists’ pious ambition to establish a new society, the “meetinghouse” merged religion, government, and community into a powerful civic ideal that prevailed for two centuries. Leifheit’s photos evoke what it was like for the family during their months inside the church, creating images of their living spaces, the art they made while there, and the people from the congregation who helped them. Leifheit’s photos of the church’s neoclassical spaces and architectural details encourage us to approach it with reverence as a sanctuary, as well as with a sense of history.
“As depicted by Leifheit, the Old Lyme meetinghouse is both ark and prison, sheltering and confining a family hoping to partake in the American dream,” notes Curator Amy Kurtz Lansing. “’Nothing More American’ is sure to spark conversation and debate and we will make every effort to present the topic and its themes with sensitivity to all viewpoints.”
In order to provide an outlet for varying perspectives to be shared, the Museum will provide a talkback wall where visitors can respond to some of the central questions posed in the exhibition. “We do not expect to create consensus,” says Kurtz Lansing, “but we willingly embrace the challenge of creating a space for a positive and productive discussion of the issues raised by the exhibition.”
This exhibition presents Leifheit’s photos in conjunction with traditional paintings of the Old Lyme church and similar meetinghouses drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection, with selected loans. The title, Nothing More American, comes from artist Lorado Taft’s description of Hassam’s painting Church at Old Lyme as “nothing more American on all the continent,” a sentiment that resonates both with the historic image of the church and with the relationship of immigration to the American dream. Traditional paintings and contemporary photographs hanging together in the galleries will allow the exploration of questions of nationality and identity through media ranging from portraits to landscapes across the century.
Leifheit is Editor-in-Chief of MATTE Magazine, an independent journal of emerging photography founded in 2010, and was formerly photo editor of VICE Magazine. He holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from the Yale School of Art, where he was awarded the Richard Benson Prize in 2017. Leifheit has taught at Pratt, Yale, School of Visual Arts, Parsons, and the National YoungArts Foundation. His work has been exhibited internationally and is held in public collections such as the International Center of Photography, the Museum of Modern Art Library, and Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. “Nothing More American” is his first solo museum exhibition.