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Art + Environment @ Nevada Museum of Art

Rodrigo Pérez de Arce, The Fog Garden

Some museums try to be all things to all people, exhibiting everything from costumes and ancient Egyptian artifacts to works made last year. But a number of mid-sized institutions eschew the global approach, opting instead for a tighter focus. The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno is one such institution. Its programming, collecting and exhibitions examine the landscape, specifically, human interactions with the natural, built and digital environments.  This innovative and highly successful approach has produced a meaningful and dynamic relationship with the institution’s setting: the extraordinary desert landscape of northern Nevada—as well as with Land Art’s history throughout the American West.

This fall, in conjunction with the presentation of its second Art + Environment Conference, the museum’s galleries are filled with related exhibitions dealing with environmental issues, which are increasingly the focus of a wide range of art practices. These shows employ varying proportions of the didactic and the poetic, with titles like Fog Gardens: the Architecture of Water (a serious study of how fog can be harvested to provide a viable hydrological source) to The Heavens Are Blue (intimate photographic portraits of birds). Other shows present future-focused imaginings by both artists and architects about transformations wrought by climate change. One, the work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, envisions gradually replacing the native flora of a watershed in the Sierra Nevada to keep pace with global warming. Another, informatively titled Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Models, uses photographs, imaginative models, and entrancingly Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions to reveal speculative or previously inaccessible views of the world.  Some contributions are entirely conjectural, like David Gissen’s large, digitally-manipulated images of public space transformed into museum space, with track lighting in an open plaza, for example.  Smout Allen’s tools and gizmos relating to time and water—specifically to the flow of England’s longest river and to the accommodation of different levels of water in the flood basin that encompasses parts of London– are based in extensive research as well as flights of fancy. There are even devices for measuring rainbows and the scent of a particular site. 
 
Amy Fransceshini, This is Not a Trojan Horse, 2010
 
One highlight of the smaller, room-sized shows is the tender documentation, through video and photographs, of a meditative walkabout through the Abruzzo region of Italy by artist Amy Franceschini and writer Michael Taussig and their collaborators. The group pushed a largely abstract wooden horse-cum-blackboard into tiny towns in order to engage with the region’s farmers, sometimes collecting seeds or recipes along the way. The show’s title– This is not a Trojan Horse— makes it clear that there was no secret agenda being carried into these interactions beyond a kind of social sculpture built around conversation.  Franceschini and Taussig initiated these dialogues at a pivotal moment in the history of agriculture in the region.  Traditional practices are being challenged and often displaced by large-scale corporate farming; the mostly elderly men and women shown in the video nostalgically remember bringing in the harvest by hand, though even small landowners have long since given up such practices.
 
Linda Fleming, Gray Matter, 2006. Powder coated steel, 84 x 132 x 100 inches
The relationship of sculptor Linda Fleming’s retrospective of maquettes to the overall theme of Art + Environment seems subtle at first, but is actually profound. Fleming, who lives part of the year in the Black Rock desert nearby, has experimented with scale and setting for decades, placing her sometimes-gargantuan pieces against the big skies of both Colorado and Nevada. The complicated patterns and shapes of the maquettes come from her observations of the natural world, as well as an abiding interest in astronomy and the devices humans have invented to observe the stars and planets.  Placing Fleming’s pieces in the museum’s light-washed rooftop gallery is a brilliant display strategy. In this intimate meditative space, the complicated shadows cast by the intricately-cut forms seem almost as tangible as the wood or cardboard pieces themselves, arranged on open shelves against glass walls offering a panoramic view of the mountains.
 
Water Thief, Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptural contraption/ installation, addresses the themes of water and time directly and metaphorically. The title is a literal translation of the Greek word clepsydra, used to designate devices that measure time through the metering of flow: that is, water clocks. The particular device to which Al-Hadid’s work refers was the 13th century invention of Al-Jazir, one of the great figures of the Islamic Golden Age of science and mathematics.
 
Diana Al-Hadid, Water Thief, 2010. Polymer gypsum, fiberglass, steel
Al-Hadid’s work often explores architectural structures, suggesting, by their fractured or dysfunctional state, ruined monuments. She creates these dream-like structures from materials such as cardboard, plaster, steel and resin, painting them all over with thick layers of drippy strokes in a muted palette. The effect is almost achronic— implying great age and contemporaneity at the same time.
 
The museum’s largest collection is highlighted in ‘The Altered Landscape,’ a sprawling yet elegant presentation of 150 works from the Carol Franc Buck Collection of contemporary landscape photographs. The collection, founded in the early 90’s, focuses on “images that address and engage issues related to land use and the changing landscape,” primarily from the last 30 years. Clearly the centerpiece of all of the shows on view, this exhibition is an intelligently-paced presentation of the depredations wrought in the American West and around the world. The works on view represent only a small fraction of the collection’s more than 900 images. In the galleries, they are broadly arranged in thematic groups, allowing viewers to think about the ways in which spaces often described as empty have been explored and exploited — from nuclear test sites (Sharon Stewart, Patrick Nagatani)) and immense pit mines (Edward Burtynsky, Michael Light) to clear cutting (Eirik Johnson) and its result, giant piles of lumber (Chris Jordan). There are pictures of water systems, suburban sprawl and oppressive urban density, by too many artists to mention.  
 
Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #36, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996. Chromogenic print, 22 ¾ x 34 ½ inches
 
But even images of waste– giant piles of discarded tires, or the toxic tailings from mines– become beautiful, albeit in a terrible kind of way, when framed by the skill and talent of photographers who, even while representing ongoing catastrophes, create extraordinarily compelling—and attractive– pictures.  Few human beings can be seen. They aren’t necessary. Their presence is obvious.
 
A coffee table-sized book published by Skira Rizzoli in conjunction with the show, functions as an exhibition catalog and freestanding visual manifesto. Brad Bartlett’s conceptual approach to design allows relationships between the gallery images, selected by the museum’s chief curator Ann Wolfe, to be repeated in the book.  In one example, Ansel Adams’ classic black and white Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, CA (1944) follows Terry’s Falke’s identically-titled color photograph, taken from the same vantage point 44 years later.  Falke’s frank inclusion of power poles, wires and transformers is a reminder that the other work only seems to represent a pristine spot; Adams worked diligently in the darkroom to efface any human traces from the final print.
 
Ansel Adams, Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, CA, 1944. Gelatin silver print, 9 5/8 x 14 inches; Terry Falke, Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California, 1998. C-print, 13 ¾ x 23 inches
 
Other pairings of images invoke relationships both visual and conceptual.  A 1974 grouping of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s portraits of Germany’s obsolete industrial architecture appears in both the exhibit and the book close to Eric Paddock’s macabre Imploded Molasses Tank, Loveland Colorado, from 1991. A satellite dish and trampoline in the foreground of Paddock’s composition indicate a disturbing level of comfort with living in proximity to industrial activity, unlike the isolated structures chosen by the Bechers. Then again, it seems possible that the Becher’s highly-specific aesthetic, like that of Ansel Adams, dictated that such signs of life not be part of the picture.
 
In both of these instances, of course, the later works seem unthinkable without the earlier ones. The influence (and presence) of the so-called “New Topographics” photographers is strong throughout the museum’s collection, and thus the exhibition and book. This includes the Bechers as well as Robert Adams—the subject of a mini-show in another gallery all by himself– and Henry Wessel Jr. This makes perfect sense, since the subtitle of the New Topographics exhibition in 1975 was “Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.”  Nowadays, however, there isn’t even a pretense of the lack of emotion or opinion ascribed to those earlier images, or the hair-shirt austerity associated with it. Beauty is no longer a dirty word, and whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your point of view about what these images can or cannot accomplish in the world.
 
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ansichten eines Kalksilos in Duisburg-Ruhrort Suite, 1974. Lithographs, 15 ¾ x 11 7/8 inches; Eric Paddock, Imploded Molasses Tank, Loveland Colorado, 1991. C-print, 12 x 18 inches
 
 Some conjunctions exist only in the book. An example is the sandwiching of an image of a serpentine trough formed in reddish soil by Andy Goldsworthy between two violently gorgeous Edward Burtynsky pictures of nickel tailings from an Ontario mine, in which an ominous red-orange liquid meanders through the foreground. (In the exhibition, these works are in different rooms.) Seen in the book, these pictures seem equally lovely and equally manipulative, which brings up the issue that faces any volume of reproductions of contemporary art: scale. The show, as seen in the museum, capitalizes on a rich variety of sizes, including a mammoth print by Wim Wenders of a mammoth crater-like feature in Australia.  That is something the book cannot accomplish. Yet it faces this challenge squarely, using banner-like, sometimes enigmatic text between sections of images and pithy but thoughtful essays. This draws attention to the shifts from macro to micro, as do as the brilliant orange pages that are also used like the waves of a conductor’s baton to change the way we read both images and words.
 
Robert Adams, Burning Oil Sludge, Boulder County, Colorado, 1974. Gelatin silver print, 5 x 7 inches
 
In the end, the question I raised earlier remains: what can art do at a time when environmental crises grow exponentially greater by the day and the time we have to resolve them grows shorter? During the conference, this and other urgent issues were broached, though fortunately, no simple answers were offered.  There are none.  But at least there is a place where it is possible to see what contemporary artists are thinking about these things. Through their eyes and hands, we can attempt to understand not only our own part in all of this, but to grasp these complicated issues through art itself.
–MARIA PORGES
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“Art + Environment” @ the Nevada Museum of Art includes 13 related exhibitions, most on view through the end of 2011.  Some run longer. Click here for details.
 
About the Author
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 60 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an assistant professor at California College of the Arts in the graduate program in Fine Arts.
 
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