by George Philip LeBourdais
Landscape has fallen on hard times. The genre, as exemplified by pastoral canvases, languishes far from its 19th-century heyday, when artists of the Hudson River School like Frederic Edwin Church commanded record prices and throngs of admiring viewers. Today, many artists recoil from it, even as related topics like borders and global warming dominate headlines. Even artists like Lorna Simpson, whose Unanswerable cycle of collage paintings engage with the landscape tradition, keep the term conspicuously absent from their descriptions. If contemporary art has something meaningful to tell us, landscape is not an obvious vehicle for doing so.
Yet the genre’s legacy persists in a pair of San Francisco exhibitions: Rodney McMillian at SFMOMA (to June 9) and Richard T. Walker at Fraenkel Gallery through July 6. Both reinterpret landscape earnestly without framing it as romantic or too fraught. Each show re-imagines this change by literally introducing sound into the visual field to disrupt notions of what landscape is or ought to be.
McMillian addresses this head-on in his installation on SFMOMA’s fourth floor, his first solo museum show on the West Coast. The work, titled In This Land, consists of an enormous swath of duck cloth, 88 feet long and 14 feet high that the artist has covered with an array of bright liquids: house paint, acrylic, ink. The accretion of these materials makes the canvas ominously heavy; it sags down from ceiling to floor.
The artist’s choice of materials connects with broader themes in his work. The black canvas, for instance, suggests that blackness is not an addition to the landscape but the very ground on which color may be added, a gambit McMillian has marshaled effectively in prior work. The use of house paint evokes questions about how to create a feeling of home, while the dripping and marbling of different pigments call to mind notions of fluidity and movement.
Visually, the painting is both immediate and unfolding. Looking at it, I can’t help but think of a geological cross-section in technicolor, as if Peter Doig had decided to illustrate a book by John McPhee. Bending the exhibition space into a curved panorama, the canvas surrounds the viewer with stratified ribbons of color exposed like layers of gleaming rock deposited over millennia. That transformation is striking; it’s a feat to push modernism’s familiar vocabulary of drips and washes past its characteristic abstract expressionist toward something that reflects notions of deep geologic time.
The artist doesn’t ask us to weigh all this in silence. For McMillian, who is African-American, landscape encompasses an expanded political field full of diverse histories and voices. “I don’t recall ever looking at the landscape as a pastoral scene,” explained the South Carolina native in an interview posted on the museum’s website, alluding to so many Hudson River School compositions. “I’ve always encountered it as a space of work, a space of ownership, as a space of oppression…”
To advance that idea, he turns to music. Speakers next to the canvas play two well-known songs, re-recorded by McMillian in his own voice, that play on a loop: Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A and Home from The Wiz, the musical retelling The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from a modern African-American viewpoint. Between recordings we hear the voice of Tomiquia Moss, a Bay Area organizer and activist who speaks about homelessness and the systemic injustices that perpetuate it.
Identifying those songs as narratives of belonging and exile, McMillian amplifies and commemorates those who have come before. Whereas the beloved Springsteen lyrics give us the pathos of Vietnam veterans, The Wiz offers a more wistful dream of making things right: “And just maybe I can convince time to slow up…Time be my friend and let me start again.”
While Moss’ commentary is compelling, the mood that McMillian creates with music is what ultimately sets the tone of the installation. He pares songs down into a sparse, intermittent dirge. Wandering synthesizer riffs, wavering choral moans, and a rolling snare backbeat create the austere ambiance of a cortege. McMillian’s own voice is tinny, lending a lo-fi scratch to the lyrics, sometimes spoken in dry meter, sometimes screamed in raspy swells. As a whole, these effects shift Born in the U.S.A and Home into a hollow, distorted realm, as if to say the stories of those songs aren’t as tragic and unjust as you’ve imagined them; they’re worse. The longer you absorb the soundtrack, the darker the painted panorama becomes.
* * *
Richard T. Walker, who is having his first solo show at Fraenkel Gallery (earlier exhibitions appeared in 2016 and 2017 at FraenkelLab), integrates sound into his work to question the validity of the landscape genre in ways that are more playful and ambivalent than McMillian.
His practice is based in photography and video but incorporates a range of materials, from neon lights to cut stones to speaker-filled lightboxes and electric guitars. The showstopper here is outside repetition, a video projected onto a trampoline. It shows the artist bouncing on that object in an unspecified wilderness area, repeating the exercise with an outstretched hand in a futile quest to reach the top of a mountain miles in the distance.
The fact that this activity (and others in Walker’s oeuvre) are meticulously choreographed and recorded distinguishes his roving acts of endurance from those of gruffer land art forebears like Hamish Fulton and Richard Long. It’s a stunning show, full of colors that glow and pop. These aesthetic differences reflect different stakes; where Fulton walked to weave himself into nature, Walker skips and spins to break down the language of landscape only to cobble it back together in new ways.
A series titled separately/together demonstrates this playful engagement with the genre and its conventions. In a group of small frames sprinkled across the gallery wall, photographs of rocks float on a flat white background. Where the stones intersect, Walker overlays circular cutouts of a mountain peak – they come from an etching he pulled from a popular 19th-century book of landscape illustrations called Picturesque America.
The illustration, for Walker, brought to mind Mt. Shasta, the lonely stratovolcano in northern California. “I’ve always thought of Shasta like a cartoon mountain,” he told me on a sunny day in his adoptive San Francisco. “Everything in its vicinity seems to exist in relation to it.” For
Walker, who hails from northern England, Western landscapes, through years of representation in paintings, photographs and films, have become caricatures of themselves. His response is to show the ways we turn them into simulacra.
separately/together conveys this idea by interrupting photographs with drawings, and vice versa. In some frames, the rock/mountain combo is “resolved”; the edge of the rock flows neatly into the contour of the mountain. In the “unresolved” variants, the mountain peak spins around on a hidden motor, with the edges aligning only for a moment. It’s another witty transposition by an artist with a good eye, but with Walker there’s often an aphorism lurking in the wings. Mountains out of molehills, anyone?
Such unspoken clichés point to the primary content of Walker’s work, which to open the monolithic realm of landscape to difference “voices” – human voices. For several years, he’s made a practice of singing to wide-open spaces, his 2018 installation these things being a prime example. In this he sings a single note to different mountain landscapes, cobbling together various scenes to create a melody. It’s a plaintive, sliding tune. Imagine a Gregorian chant backed by a guitar arpeggio.
The beauty of the piece links Walker to the Romantic landscape tradition; the absurdity of the whole proposition is emblematic of his desire to revamp it. In other pieces that document performances, the artist with his back to the camera casts himself as a modern-day Rückenfigur in the mold of Caspar David Friedrich. Although we still use gauzy, high Romantic words like sublime and picturesque to describe views of lofty mountain vistas, Walker’s dismantling of such terms indicates that his idiom isn’t properly Romantic after all.
Works like Friedrich’s dramatize the primal experience of landscape. They offer an unobstructed window onto the world, sparing us labor and the physical danger posed by entering into it. Not so with Walker. He’s always jumping around the frame, chucking rocks into it, or humming a melody into the air. Peeling back the curtain in this way to expose an artistic process is a hallmark of the Baroque, not Romanticism. (Maybe Velazquez’s Las Meninas is a better point of reference than, say, Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.)
Walker employs other subtle ways to subvert Romanticism’s gospel of control and conquest, the very notions that have made it so unfashionable. In rotational relevance, he takes the same circular Shasta cutout and pairs it with an image of his bent elbow. The images rotate in front of guitars, holding picks that are drawn across strings, literally setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition: Other related sound works stationed in different parts of the gallery are performed in the same key, lending harmony to the “conversation” taking place between them.
Where McMillian has Springsteen and the Wiz, it’s easy to imagine Walker paying homage to Ani DiFranco, whose classic song Untouchable Face raises similar themes of longing and ineffability. Like Walker’s hymn to the unattainable mountaintop, DiFranco addresses an intimate acquaintance who’s blind to her affection. Both are unrequited love songs. Any of the lines from that song could serve as titles for one of Walker’s pieces:
You look like a photograph of yourself
Taken from far far away
I won't know what to do and
I won't know what to say.
The words describe how we often transform familiar things into caricatures of themselves in our minds, projecting our own perceptions rather than seeing things as they are. Language, however, isn’t futile in this scenario; it’s an essential co-conspirator, promising that where an explanation is given, it can also be taken away. As Walker said of his Sisyphean stunt to grab the mountain peak, “It’s not failing, because trying is the point.” Towards the end of DiFranco’s song, her lyrics dissolve into a breathy jumble of heys and ums, an aphasic resignation well-attuned to Walker’s predilections for feelings he can’t quite articulate.
# # #
About the author:
George Philip LeBourdais is a historian of American art and photography. His exhibitions and writing have earned awards from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Clark Art Institute, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission, among other institutions. A Mainer by birth, he holds a PhD in art history from Stanford and lives in San Francisco.