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Soil to Site @ Montalvo

Sean McFarland: "Untitled (grove)", 2011, C-print, 40 x 80"


Given the insults we’ve inflicted on the planet, is it any wonder we have difficulty re-creating a Walden-like experience? Soil to Site, the final installment in an 18-month cycle of events titled Natural and Creative Capitol, examines the always-fraught relationship between man and nature. It features three Bay Area artists who lean toward the Edenic, but who also openly acknowledge the challenges facing anyone who seeks to establish a deep relationship with what today passes for wilderness. 

If there’s a through-line running through the exhibit it’s that wilderness exists purely at our pleasure, and it does so only through acts of human beneficence, not acts of God.  Sean McFarland, a highly skilled simulation artist, has a strategy for negotiating this skewed state of affairs. His collaged photos, based on images that he collects and digitally reconstructs, are designed to operate like dioramas, re-creating “facts” of natural history by fictionalizing them. Crepuscular and hermetic and alternating between medium-sized C-Prints and tiny (3/1/2 x 4/14”) Polaroids, they make the familiar seem strange and the strange seem familiar. The five prints on view here come from two series, Dark Pictures (2011) and Pictures of the Earth (2009-11). 

McFarland: "Lightning", 2010, Polaroid, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4

They make you feel as if you’re staring through a keyhole into art history. Impenetrably dark foliage, broad vistas, pristine waterfalls, lightening and other primordial aspects of the Earth recall photo-graphy’s 19th century beginnings and its ongoing dialog with American and European Romantic painting of the same period. McFarland integrates these elements into fakes that are wholly plausible, but not so perfect as to make you think you’re looking at a “straight” photograph. 

As such, they’re apt metaphors for his belief that our perception of the Earth is altered by everything we’ve done to it (and everything we haven’t.) If that comes off sounding too much like the postmodern cliché about the relativity of everything, so be it. The longer you look at these pictures the more apparent it becomes that they are not just simple exercises in visual destabilization but, rather, subtle pleas for the exercise of consciousness.

So, too, is Mari Andrews’ installation of dirt-filled lead pouches, Collected Topography. Spread across a wall, the individual pouches appear as mundane objects – until you look inside them and see that the soil, harvested from 29 locations across the West, is incredibly diverse in color and texture. 
Mari Andrews: "Collected Topography", 2011, lead, soil, wire
Dirt, no matter how rich or how finely tilled, never triggers anything approaching an epiphany in me, but it does here. Andrews succeeds by doing the opposite of what she does normally, which is to create sculptures built of poetic materials (twigs, branches, seed pods and lichen) that, once installed in galleries, feel drained of whatever poetry their raw materials may have once had. In contrast, dirt, which has zero aesthetic value, overflows with it when presented out of context. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Andrews uses lead, a toxic material, as a container for her excavations; it gives the installation a critical edge, highlighting the contradiction between our professed reverence for the natural world and our continued abuse of it.
In Hierarchy of Relevance, a 7-minute video, the Britain-born San Francisco artist Richard T. Walker films himself serenading inanimate objects (shrubs, rocks and mountains and trees) against a series of stunning desert backdrops. In a voiceover that precedes his performance on various instruments, Walker delivers a monologue that describes his existential dilemma. “He looked again at the immediate surroundings in the hope that he would no longer see them with such excessive clarity. But he couldn’t escape their individual wonder. He desperately needed a distraction. His thoughts began to meander, confused and agitated, unsure where to land. But slowly they started to calm, eventually culminating and floating into a short melody that glossed over the moment.”   Unable to meet his self-imposed challenge, he does what he can: he sings, strums a guitar and beats a drum. Ultimately, as he explains in the video, it was the song that “briefly set him free.” 
Richard T. Walker, "The Hierarchy of Relevance", 2010, still from 8-min video
Like the British writer John Berger, who walked across Europe wondering what horrors the land beneath his feet may have witnessed, Walker, with self-deprecating good humor, wanders the wilderness trying to rise to the task of comprehending the grandeur before him. That he’ll fail is a foregone conclusion; whatever state of grace he needs simply cannot be mustered. But its unavailability, the Soil to Site artists seem to be saying, doesn’t matter. The important thing that we keep trying. How?  The show offers no quick fixes, no redemptive path.  You can sing to rocks, as Walker does. Or, you can do what I do: take a good long walk in the woods that lay just beyond the gallery walls – on the 175-acre parcel  of land deeded to the public trust in 1930 by California’s first popularly elected U.S. Senator, James Phelan (1861-1930), a philanthropically minded politician who understood the soul-enriching properties of open space.   
"Soil to Site" @ Montalvo Arts Center through January 15, 2011.
About the Author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder. 

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