This Land: Digital Guide
July 19 – September 20, 2013
University Gallery & Downtown Campus
“Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.”
The land has been an important part of American identity, prosperity, and culture since the dawn of our nation. We grew up as a country of farmers, trappers, prospectors, loggers, ranchers, and watermen, so the centrality of the land to our history is no surprise. How we have conceived of this land can be seen in the works of art depicting it, such as Albert Bierstadt’s paintings of Yosemite Valley that dramatize the landscape in the nineteenth century romantic style. While images by Bierstadt and other Hudson River School artists may encapsulate the nineteenth century American zeitgeist, these images also shaped peoples perception of the natural world. Often people saw images, such as the photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan, prior to experiencing the real thing for themselves…if they ever did.
“I progress very slowly, for nature reveals herself to me in very complex ways; and the progress needed is endless…The Louvre is a good book to consult but it must be only an intermediary. The real and immense study to be undertaken is the manifold picture of nature.”
Jean-François Lyotard wrote, “It used to be said that landscapes…were wild because they were, in Northern Europe, always forests. FORIS, outside. Beyond the pale, beyond the cultivated land, beyond the realm of form.” Here Lyotard hints that the inexorable draw of nature comes from the sense that it is over “there” and beyond the known confines of domesticated space. As we become an ever more urban society millions of Americans head to our remaining respites of wilderness each year. This suggests that this land is still an important part of our lives, though an ever more remote part, an ever more distant other. We perhaps suffer from “nature deficit disorder” as some have proposed, and at the same time our understanding of the natural world is more nuanced, detailed, and complex than ever before. We get closer and closer to knowing its entirety and in effect squashing the very lure of its formlessness. New questions seem to always arise as nature continues to evolve one step ahead. The minute our power is knocked out by a strong storm we are reminded how tenuous our control over our environment really is.
“The human condition is characterized by a feedback loop between human activity and our material surroundings. In this view, space is not a container for human activities to take place within, but is actively ‘produced’ through human activity.”
The immense scale of nature and the intricacy of its processes lends to the feeling that it is somehow foreign or other. As Bill Bryson writes of his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, “Woodsare not like other spaces. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.” It is of course not “other”…it is part of us. The natural world is our world, and we cannot survive without it. It produces us, and is produced by us. It is “a system we are fundamentally native to, but unavoidably separated from; one that produces us, even as we (physically, conceptually, discursively) produce it” as Jeffrey Kastner puts it. We seem to be a threshold here in America as well as around the world. As the effects of climate change increase and we truly comprehend just how integrated we are with our environment…how will we move forward? This land is our land and we must decide how we will live in and with it.
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The twelve artists in this exhibition respond in very different ways to the natural world and our place within it. Below is a sample of each artist’s work and how their work relates to this Land.
Rachel Abrams as she writes, is “interested in the relationships between information and placement, action and consequence, experience and time, ritual and movement, layering and memory, empathy and entropy.” Many of her “works are the products of years of experimentation developing once an identifiable connection is made, with historical threads both apparent and esoteric.” Abrams’ work is particularly connected to materials, especially with those materials that are the residual leftovers of our lives.
Vaughn Bell‘s pocket biospheres provide participants with their own potable mini-wilderness. This project points to the responsibility we all have to care for the biosphere in which we live, but brings what may seem like a a colossal task down to the palm of your hand. Stop by either locations of the show to adopt our own pocket biosphere.
Mark Nystrom considers himself an interpreter. Data collected from nature is the raw material of his work. When we think of images of landscape we first think of a horizon, but Nystrom’s work points out that other meaningful pictures of our environment are possible. Through his work, winds are made visual in the form of dancing lines of light or what looks like an artist’s obsessive marks on the page. This artwork connects us to the natural world in both a real and a removed way; real because he uses real observed data, and removed because these bits of information are transformed into visualizations of phenomena, turning the tactile into the optical.
Megan Cump‘s uncanny work suggests mythic transformations as she takes refuge in and merges with the natural world. As Cump writes about her work, “My photographs fuse performative elements with traditional landscape imagery, in order to explore the metaphoric potential of the environment.” These images are the result of solitary kayaking and hiking trips taken by the artist, and a real intimacy with her surroundings is obvious in the photographs she produces. While her actions suggest the work of Ana Mendieta, her images conjure other, older figures of art history, such as Gustave Courbet and Caspar David Friedrich.
Kevin Fitzgerald‘s interest is in painting and he gets his inspiration from the works of masters from 15th to 20th century. He has traveled across the country painting landscapes, but he calls the Eastern Shore home. Fitzgerald’s paintings are grounded in the plein air tradition, yet his larger more finished works are closer to color field painting. These works are based on reality yet go beyond it, suggesting place rather than explicitly describing it. These abstracted landscapes seem particularly suited to the lowlands of Delmarva that are known for their fog and mist.
Eric LoPresti‘s paintings investigate the cultural aftereffects of dramatic conflict, focusing on the Cold War. Home for LoPresti was the vast, desert-like terrain of eastern Washington state, and the economic base of his hometown of Richland was the Hanford Site, a plutonium production facility established in 1945 as part of the Manhattan Project. His monumental paintings picture the seductive yet dystopian landscapes of atomic testing grounds, and his personal experience with these sites brings an intimate and drippy feeling to his work.
Dan Mills‘ Quest series takes the familiar form of territorial maps as form and subject. As Eleanor Heartney wrote: “…the geometric order of the checkerboard is subsumed beneath luminous shapes and layers of color that vibrate visually and speak as much about the history of art as they do about the history of the world. Thus Quest makes the point that, far from being objective records of physical places, maps are themselves consciously constructed art forms. The geography they depict exists in human consciousness rather than within the landscape itself.”
Courtney Puckett‘s sculptures play with domestic materials like table cloths to create suggested natural forms, such as clouds and birds. Her crafty materials combined with thoughtful abstraction pose as domesticated nature. These playful works suggest a digitally fabricated world beyond their homely materials. They also bring into mind the history of women challenging the traditional rules of painting and sculpture and problematic link between the feminine and the natural. Puckett’s environment is urban and in that space she reclaims scraps and former household items as fodder for her “natural” objects.
Gwyneth Scally‘s work explores the simultaneously catastrophic and romantic relationship we have with the natural world. Pulling from research she conducted at the National Archives of historic polar expeditions, including those of Admirals Peary and Byrd and the English explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, as well as her personal memories and experiences in Maryland, Scally creates work that feels fragile and beautiful yet distinctly out of place. Her iceberg emerges from unlikely desert locations as well as in the gallery itself while her jellyfish float within the white cube, frozen. These works conjure dichotomies that harken back to 19th century notions of the sublime wilderness, while questioning our contemporary duplicities towards nature.
Claire Sherman‘s paintings have been called an “unexpected blend of Willem de Kooning and Bob Ross.” Resting on the border of representation and abstraction, Sherman’s work suggests the form of nature as seen through postmodern pixels. This hyperbolic form seems a decidedly contemporary perspective of the natural world that is the result of the multitude of images we all carry around in our minds as we hike through actual forests. Her paintings seem to hold a dark specter or tense foreboding, and as she writes, “stifling emptiness pervades each unraveling environment in the work. The medley of imagery presented eliminates the need to identify the actual place – these are not paintings that seek to portray a specific view or experience. They address the ubiquity of imagery we associate with the genre of landscape, nullifying a sense of particularity. The paintings become their own locations.”
Peter Stern’s aerial photography shows the Eastern Shore as it is seldom seen. The title of this series, Nentego, is the autonym of the Nanticoke People, the original inhabitants of this area. This title reflects the unaltered and transformed forests and marshes that make up this unique landscape. The photos in this series were taken by Stern while he was flying alone in a light aircraft in October 2012. He found “strange and inexplicable excavations and pathways” among the more obviously natural formations of waterways and vegetation. In one image an over-gown field looks like “old glory” a most likely inadvertent coincidence, but a poetic impression of this altered landscape none the less.
Constance Costigan‘s work plays with ambiguities of form and subtle textures created by meticulously layered graphite marks. While her images often appear to be landscapes, she inserts a misty quality that points to the quantum physical mechanics that pervade space and time. For Costigan, things are in constant motion all that differs is the rate at which things change. Her works suggest these varying degrees of motion when her small, seemingly quick marks coalesce to produce wide vistas, mountain ranges, and vast bodies of unknown material.
This Land EVENTS:
Performance: Khristian Weeks
Third Friday, August 16, 8pm
Somewhere between installation art and performance, Khristian Weeks manipulates light and sound to transform environments.
Panel Discussion: Land, Landscapes and Earthly Visions: A Scholarly and Artistic Interchange
September 4, 7-9 pm
Fulton Hall 111
James Hatley (environmental studies), Ivan Young (environmental studies), and Elizabeth Kauffman (art).
Performance: Tatsuya Nakatani
Thursday, September 19, 8pm
Experimental percussionist performs inorganic, industrial-like noises juxtaposed in the same breath as organic and lush nature-like sounds.
Closing Reception: This Land & The Water Business
Third Friday, September 20, 5 – 8pm
University Gallery & Downtown Campus
Join us for light fare and drinks to celebrate the closing of these two exhibitions. Shuttle service between galleries provided.