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Urbanature, An Introduction

New Representations of the Natural
A six part serial essay and online exhibition focused on the contemporary depiction of landscape in the painting, photographic and sculptural arts.

Exhibition Artists Include:
Merion Estes, Roland Reiss, and Elizabeth Bryant, Don Suggs and Karen Carson, Linda Stark and Nancy Evans, Ross Rudel and Pierre Picot, Coleen Sterritt and Constance Mallinson

Landscape painting and photography have always been, as Malcolm Andrews termed it,  “the barometer of anxieties over the balance of power between nature and culture.” A landscape is a mediated view of nature, one that has been aesthetically processed, a product of human control over wildness and natural chaos. This pictorial approach always maintains an uneven proportion of humans to non-human so that the fantasy of an undefiled, natural playground or respite, and unbounded resources remains intact. As W.J.T. Mitchell explains, in Landscape and Power, that mode of representation has been compromised and is “now part of a repertory of kitsch, endlessly reproduced in amateur painting, postcards, packaged tours, and prefabricated emotions.” Lusciously painted picturesque scenery, glossy Sierra Club calendars, seductive travel and advertising media featuring unspoiled natural environments, continue, however, to be the apotheosis of expressing our relationship to the land.

The framed landscape instills the individual viewer with a sense of mastery and control, from the high Renaissance’s rational and ordered structuring of space to the Romantic obsession with nature as path to spiritual and moral improvement. Representations of nature have always been analogous to advances in knowledge and perception while simultaneously promoting an estrangement from nature itself, a negation that has contributed to centuries’ long land and ecosystem destruction. Much of the landscape imagery we value,has its roots in Rousseau, Hobbes, and Thoreau with their notions that humans live more ethically and purely amidst nature, while Kantian theories of the sublime propelled the Romantics to find emotional solace, spiritual uplift and renewal upon gazing awe inspiring scenery. Less fixed in our psyches is the idea that such gorgeous landscape painting and photography have been tethered to progressive narratives that fueled imperialistic motivations from the colonial era through Manifest Destiny’s North American expansion to the present. Icons of abundance, nineteenth century photographers’ images of the American West made Easterners comfortable with and tantalized by the conquest and subsequent commercial development and domestication of the American frontier. Their legacy is today’s oil, nuclear, and chemical company advertising  depicting “reclamation” or respectful “coexistence” with the natural environment, or automotive corporations’ promotion of SUV’s in advertisements displaying the big polluters serenely situated among redwood forests or mountain streams. Assuming a false harmony with the natural, these kinds of familiar representations encourage deforestation, development, and mineral extraction by reinforcing historical perceptions and optimistic narratives of progress. Such idealized fictions succeed as they always have in making the viewer comforted by a view of nature we would like to believe will always exist – a symbolic liberation and escape from all the overpopulation, waste, mutilation, deterioration and obliteration being perpetrated globally. Landscape representation is one of the battlegrounds on which the continuing decline of the environment is being fought and the paradigm of the beautiful pristine landscape that has concealed that representation’s involvement in the process is being challenged and reappraised by a number of contemporary artists.

Though we are hardwired to the visual pleasures of natural beauty (everyone has somewhere in their possession seductive landscape scenery to revel in like pornography), environmental scientists, writers and activists like Rachael Carlson, Aldo Leopold, Paul Shepherd, Carolyn Merchant, Paul Taylor, and Rebecca Solnit, have alerted us to the imperilment of the natural world thus making the conventions and stereotypes of such scenery harder to maintain as “real” or “natural.” Solnit has equated landscape scenery with women’s bodies as a “pleasure ground acted upon” and has advocated for a nature based art that recognizes “landscape not as scenery but as spaces and systems we inhabit, systems our lives depend upon…..the circumference of possibility, the conditions of survival…. one whose focus is on relationships.”

Unlike popular older icons of landscape art like Ansel Adams who lived and worked for long stretches in the Sierras or the Romantics who drew and painted in situ, the most compelling artists have disassociated themselves from that Romantic paradigm, the Edenic sense of an open and free relationship to space, where humans are separated from but spiritually and materially nourished by their contact with eternal natural abundance. Like the painted  female nude, the traditional framed landscape with its scopic control, upheld the possessive gaze onto the other, emphasizing a dualistic worldview that enforced our alienation from  anything natural. By purging landscape of narrative, allegory and myth, as nature imagists like Adams or Eliot Porter had succeeded in doing in the past century, even a “modern” landscape had been characterized as progressing more and more towards pure nature. Paradoxically, the unattachment to recognizable myth or narrative, has enabled nostalgic fantasies and a certain dishonesty about the human impact on nature to flourish. More recently, however, postmodern landscape theory has determined the “pure nature” representation  as a cultural production, and exposed its hidden and illusionary ideologies.

With the knowledge that nature can no longer be neutral territory and that its conventions serve so many commercial interests, the eleven artists presented here explore through photography, sculpture and painting the re-assessment and redefinition of the natural at the beginning of the 21st century, asking what we require of art in an era of environmental decay. Because older models are implicated in and aligned with nature commodification, they eschew picturesque romantic pastoralism or Arcadian retreats and derive their images of the natural from a deep involvement with their urban environments and the culture itself.  They realize nature cannot be viewed in isolation from human wants, needs, activities, and technologies, insisting on the fact that humans, even in sprawling urban areas like Los Angeles, are connected to and included in a vast ecosystem. They observe it within, not apart. As J.B. Jackson stated as early as 1960: “We are all victims, whether we know it or not, of a way of thinking that sets the city apart from any other kind of environment. At the root of this confusion is one single error: the error which proclaims that nature is something outside of us, something green which we can, perhaps enjoy as a spectacle or examine for future exploitation, but which is only distantly related to us. Nature, thus defined, belongs in the country and is all but totally excluded from the city; hence the oft-repeated outcry that urban man is alienated from it…..nature is actually omnipresent in the city: in the city’s climate, topography, and vegetation that we are in fact surrounded by an impalpable or invisible landscape of spaces and color and light and sound and movement and temperature, in the city no less than in the country.”

The role of the Urbanature artist in transforming our perceptions of nature in the 21st Century is making the conflicting assumptions, anxieties and tensions over the intersections of urbanity and nature. Reconciling the contradictions between natural idealism and the technological progressivism that cities embody is among the primary challenges of these urban artists. An interrogation of the formative historical tropes embodied in art forms that have driven and “culturized” ideas of the natural and progress is always present in their work, often in the form of quotation or appropriation. Although none see themselves as overt environmental activists, these artists embody a feminist “personal is political” ethic, transposing politics from public power arenas to the area of transformative aesthetic experience promoting prolonged meditations on a human/nature interface. The essentialism implied by using the word “nature” as sufficient in describing the infinite variety and quality of organic life is unavoidable; the word itself reinforces hierarchies and totalizing narratives that these artists are critiquing and debating. It is offset by the diversity of approaches and their engagement of fresh, inventive, visual strategies. No discourse or imagery dominates, but all embrace the importance of locality. Influenced by the city as a mutating montage of scenery, constantly and instantly shifting from the constructed, social and cultural to the natural via the car and ubiquitous images of every conceivable subject, their art maintains a neo-Baroque sense of instability, evolution, reformation and realignment. Their work ranges from botanical studies/collages regarding the immediate urban habitat, interpretations of the recent natural and manmade sublime, imagery depicting the interpenetration of nature and humans, or examinations of the cultural structures and methodologies by which nature has and is pictured. A sense of loss over the idealized past is understood, but a crucial insight into that history and the present environmental situation is sought.

Included in the Urbanature galleries works by  Elizabeth Bryant, Karen Carson, Merion Estes, Nancy Evans, Pierre Picot, Constance Mallinson, Roland Reiss, Ross Rudel, Linda Stark, Coleen Sterritt and Don Suggs.

Upcoming in Urbanature, works by Merion Estes, Roland Reiss, and Elizabeth Bryant

Comments

  1. Guy Zimmerman says:

    The JB Jackson quote is prescient. I would mention here Raymond Williams’ essay On Nature where he makes essentially the same points, and reviews how man, eager to uncover the laws that govern natural systems, split off the idea of nature from that of God. The strange effect of this split was that Western man, in his ideas about himself, became progressively alienated from his own nature. “Most earlier ideas of nature had included, in an integral way, ideas of human nature,” Williams states. The Native Americans who inhabited this region before our arrival would have found our habit of reifying the “environment” into a thing that needs to be defended or exploited to be quite eccentric.

    I would actually extend the argument even further and suggest that human alienation is itself a “natural” phenomenon. From this point of view Francis Bacon (love or hate him) is a nature painter par excellance. Like it or not we are one of the forms nature has taken on planet earth and the traumas we are causing the rest of the ecosphere represent an argument nature is having with itself.

    In any event, this is fertile terrain and I’m looking forward to seeing where these artists have arrived in terms of specific works.

  2. Kirk de Gooyer says:

    This is a wonderful project. Kudos to all. I look forward to see everyone’s work. Great introduction essay Constance !

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