“Americanitis comes from an intense desire to git thar and an awful fear that you cannot.” — From the Philistine, New York Times, 1897

Do you suffer from Americanitis?

San Francisco artist Alison Pebworth’s traveling show of paintings and more — “Beautiful Possibility,” currently at Space Gallery in Portland — can help you with that question.

Named “Americanitis” by America’s first psychology professor, William James, the condition was considered to be nervous exhaustion caused by the frenetic and unrelenting pace of life in industrial America. Rexall sold a popular tonic to treat it. Books were written about it.

Was Americanitis an imaginary malady made up just to sell make-believe medicine?

James, one of the most brilliant and intellectually connected Americans of his day, didn’t think so — and he certainly wasn’t out hocking bottles of tonic on the street corner.

Pebworth picked up James’ idea that cultural shifts can have significant physical and neurological effects on individuals. “Beautiful Possibility” asserts the interconnectedness of our diet, psychology, entertainment, politics, culture and worldview. In other words, when things change — we change.

Pebworth’s project takes the form of a 19th-century traveling show featuring eight painted canvas banners. It may seem an ultra-contemporary tincture of process, conceptualism, performance, research and painting, but it is well-connected to the roots of the phenomenon of the traveling show.

Along with a few traveling show props (actual Americanitis tonic bottles, William Sadler’s 1925 book about the affliction, etc.) and an unnervingly relevant survey about Americanitis, Pebworth presents a series of 19th-century-flavored banners announcing American culture themes largely tied to conflict and tensions within the melting pot.

“Spiritous Agents of the New World,” for example, depicts a Native American couple as Adam and Eve. Eve holds a liquor bottle supplied by a serpent-bottomed and shyster-grinned Tom DeLay, who slithers past a still and up the apple tree. Behind them, Johnny Appleseed wanders the sublime American landscape.

With details like the trompe l’oeil banner, Pebworth nails the 19th-century popular style. She can paint very well, and has just the right old-timey touch: Theatrically legible and barker loud.

At first glance, “Spirituous Agents” looks shrill and heavy-handed, but it quickly reveals a surprising depth of wit, irony and insight. Pebworth opens the door to a Mormon perspective, for example, by having the Native Americans playing the biblical role. And while the spirit/religion/liquor conflation might seem a religion-as-intoxication reference, there’s more to it. Because of bad water, most European settlers of the Southern coast died (yes, most) before the apple orchards they planted matured. The apples weren’t for eating — they needed alcoholic cider to survive.

Extended life expectancy changed the most profitable source of labor from indenture to chattels. Indentured servants required a smaller investment, so it didn’t matter as much if they died before their term was up. In fact, that saved the end-of-term outlay of land. But when slaves began to live longer, they became the better investment.

The central piece in “Beautiful Possibility” is “The Roadmap to Lost America,” a large, painted banner map depicting our nation divided into Native American territories, and on which Pebworth has marked the path and stops of her traveling show. Her keys and incidentals are humorously intriguing, such as the image of the “Chief Cherokee” she drives that looks hilariously like a Native American character portrait.

Anyone determined to see shrill self-righteousness will probably see it. After all, America’s 19th-century record regarding the folks whose perspectives we are asked to consider is largely defined by shame. And yet, that century saw emancipation, the expansion of suffrage and many other great strides of civil justice.

Pebworth’s banner “Remarkable Tricksters” evenhandedly lines up Karl Rove with Okah Tubbee and P.T. Barnum — all have been stunningly successful agents of change (and myth) in American culture. Another trick is swallowing your own partisan instincts.

Pebworth’s “Dynamical Systems” looks like a Tlingit-style totem of American syncretism combining cultural forms such as a katchina, form-line design, Betty Boop, the first incarnation of Mickey Mouse and so on. (I was particularly pleased to see earmuffs, which were invented in Maine by Chester Greenwood.) It’s a vision of a culture energized for change. There is something monstrously mutant about it, yet it’s powerfully honest and surprisingly fair.

Because of the copious Native American imagery, I see Pebworth’s Cotton Mather as the champion of smallpox inoculation, yet others might associate him with Puritanism or the Salem witch trials. To me, Andrew Jackson with a bellows is the guy who first used American democracy as an imperialist weapon, but others might now see him as the enemy of national banking. Pebworth may name the players, but she largely leaves the script to you.

Supported by a fantastic website (beautifulpossibilitytour. com), this show is entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

Whether or not you have Americanitis, “Beautiful Possibility” is worth seeing. It is different, smart, informative and fun.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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