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Contemporary Landscape @ Wendi Norris

If you’re making a field recording in a forest and an airplane flies overhead, do you turn off your microphone or do you leave it on?  That was the question Geoff Manaugh posed in an essay about The Altered Landscape, a 2011 exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art that examined how contemporary photographers treat nature.  I bring it up because the issue raised surfaces in this show as well: Namely, is "on or "off" the only choice available for artists dealing with nature?   

Val Britton, "Reverberation #8", 2013, 26 x 26 inches, graphite, ink, watercolor, and collage on paper.

Manaugh believes there's a middle position, one that stands between “nostalgic Romanticism” and the “airplanes-and-all approach.” He calls it the New Sublime, and in Journey Forth: Contemporary Landscape Between Technology and Tradition, a show that brings together painting, sculpture, collage, video and various hybrids to explore the man-nature relationship, that is what we see. Consisting of 24 works by ten artists, it navigates the gulf between idealism and reality. The unseen backdrop against which this exercise takes place is the Hudson River School, a designation that encompasses a group of 19th century painters who presented a rosy-fingered vision of the American continent at a time when historical developments were fast rendering it obsolete. 

Among the works gathered here, Mary Anne Kluth’s come closest to addressing that apparent contradiction.  The one that stands in memory is a large (93 x 36”) digital collage that simultaneously inspires awe and terror, the twin poles of the sublime.  It’s called Above the timber the mountain is naked, and all above nine thousand or ten thousand feet is a scene of unmixed and unrelieved desolation—rock, snow, and dry soil, that is all.  On the surface it’s an ethereal landscape.  It features broad vistas, mountains that give off an iridescent sheen, preternaturally lit shadow areas, and a sky daubed in cloying pastel shades – hallmarks of romantic American landscape painting.  You could say Kluth is forging a link between that and Pop Surrealism, but I think she's gone further. She's created a work of art that is both homage and parody. In this regard she stands, stylistically speaking, with Leslie Shows, an SF artist whose collages mimetically depict ruined western environments and, to a lesser degree, with Darren Waterston, a genuine romantic whose imaginary, mystical landscapes are often edged with a palpable terror of the void.
 
Mary Anne Kluth, "Above the timber the mountain is naked, and all above nine thousand or ten thousand feet is a scene of unmixed and unrelieved desolation—rock, snow, and dry soil, that is all", 2013, 92 x 36"
 
Kevin Cooley, in his video of planes taking off from JFK, seems to have adopted Manaugh’s centrist position. Standing on a bluff on Long Island Sound, above an inlet rippled by wind and waterfowl, he records the roar of jets and their contrails, transforming what most New Yorkers regard as pollution into a meditation exercise.  It seems like a dubious proposition, but it works.  I watched for about 15 minutes and left soothed by the same sounds that riled me when I lived beneath the La Guardia flight path.   
 
Charlie Casteneda and Brody Reiman, professionally known as Casteneda/Reiman, present some of the show’s smartest, most ambitious work. Their installation of floor- and wall-mounted paintings is created with a chalky/creamy mixture of pigment and drywall dust.  It’s supplemented with slabs of actual drywall and thrift-store landscape paintings, the latter leaning against the wall in groups, unaltered.  Sometimes, though not in this show, the artists photograph these works and print them onto canvas, reworking them with paint to further smudge the line between appropriation and originality.  Either way, the result is a through-the-looking-glass view of scenes thrice removed from their source, that source being the Hudson River School in all of its naïve

Castaneda/Reiman, "Untitled Landscape #2", 2013, 47 x 47 inches, pigment printed drywall, drywall mud, wood

and knowing incarnations.  Ultimately, what shines through is the artists’ affection for the genre.  Their version of it, which is dominated by pale skies and strong horizon lines, recalls Richard Diebenkorn in his Ocean Park phase, an association that brings a certain juiciness to an otherwise dry enterprise.  Yet dryness, if you think about the the materials involved, is exactly what this work is about.  Drywall.  Development. Drought.  The equation seems clear.     

Val Britton’s paper collages and installations are also complex but in a very different way.  She’s a savant of the X-Acto knife, and her works speak from the heart rather than through layers of art history.  She slices up painted paper and turns it into delicate skeins that conjure imaginary landscapes: highways, rivers, valleys, gorges, mountains, streams and jet paths. The loss of her father, a long-haul trucker, initially inspired the work, but it’s unclear whether and to what degree that influence operates on her today.  In her imagination, at least, she’s as well traveled as any career diplomat, and when you look at her work, whether sprawled across a room or displayed two-dimensionally, you are propelled along its trajectories.  Here, Britton submits four small works on paper and a modest installation (The Continental Interior) that occupies part of an open-to-view office.  They’re wonderful, but they don’t show the artist at full-strength.  Britton, like her father, loves wide-open space, and the more of it she has to work with the better, as evidenced by two recent installations, one at the SF Art Commission Gallery, the other at the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art, which also included large paper collages of boggling complexity and ingenuity. Next year, Britton will mount a solo show in this space.  That will be an event worth witnessing.
 
Clement Valla, "Postcards from Google Earth", 2010, 40 x 23 inches, archival digital print
 
Digital media gets a strong workout from Clement Valla.  He captures images from Google Earth that you’d swear are manipulated but are, in fact, straight screen shots.  They appear to be massively warped.  That’s because of a glitch in the algorithms that Google uses to assemble satellite views from multiple sources.  Of the three seen here, the most disquieting shows a roadway spanning a river at the point where it meets the sea.  It’s safe to assume a bridge supports it, but in the picture it’s nowhere to be seen; the span looks like a piece of saltwater taffy stretched between two cliffs.  More than just weird curiosities, Valla’s images demonstrate the fragility of our digital infrastructure and the inherent instability of nature itself. 
 
Gregory Euclide, "As if muting the land was part of knowing", 2012 

Gregory Euclid’s wall-mounted dioramas, composed of organic matter, craft store materials and painted paper, constitute hanging gardens – of a sort.  Whimsical and inventive, they take aim at the artificial distinctions made between nature and the so-called built environment.  While figures are absent,  the residue of human activity hovers like an aura.  

Beyond this, the show drifts.  Three dioramas presented by Patrick Jacobs, viewable through curved glass, pull you into remarkably realistic coastal scenes that look like Point Reyes, only greener.  In two of them there is a tree stump in the foreground, signaling what, I'm not sure.  Clear-cutting?  Equally ambiguous is Brice Bischoff’s large-scale photo of Bronson Cave in Griffith Park, an oft-used setting for films and TV shows.  Bischoff bathes it in pink-and yellow-tinted
 
vapors, foreshadowing the intrusion of something big and scary accompanied by low-frequency rumbles.  Matthew Moore’s photos of crop art, created on a section of family farmland slated for development, issue a warning and a heart tug. Tania Kitchell displays artificial plants on a long, low triangular pedestal.  They’re made with a 3-D printer and painted white, as if blanketed by snow.  The technology behind such feats is amazing.  The results are not. Vital questions about truth and fakery go unaddressed.   
 
Despite its few shortcomings, this ambitious and timely show, curated by Wendi Norris and Melissa Bernabei, ranks among the summer’s most memorable exhibits. 
–DAVID M. ROTH
“Journey Forth: Contemporary Landscape Between Technology and Tradition” @ Gallery Wendi Norris through August 31, 2013.
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