The Not-So-Great Outdoors
Most of us profess to love nature, although few of us have any sustained, unprotected contact with it. During the Song dynasty, Chinese scholars and artists presented contemplative, elegant and idealized views of nature. A solitary figure would be shown in thoughtful repose in a landscape. After the Mongol invasion, many of these delicate scholar-artists fled to remote areas of the country in a kind of forced Girl Scout camp experience. Once obliged to live in nature, their depictions of it shifted from idyllic to menacing. "SuperNature: landscape in contemporary art" at Inman Gallery presents the work of nine international contemporary artists and their variously skewed takes on nature, ranging from the ominous to the blatantly artificial. If you're seeking the romantic scenery of the Hudson River School, this ain't it.
Naomi Fisher's huge saturated color photograph Untitled (hole in ground) (2000) shows a half-naked woman smeared with dirt and surrounded by foliage. She's sitting on a clump of lilies growing out of the dark, loamy earth. Has she fallen, or was she pushed? Her underwear is shoved below her hips. Could it be the scene of a sexual assault in the night woods? A girl dragged to a remote forest to be attacked and brutally murdered? Is she looking up at someone? Conversely, it might document someone falling on her ass during a particularly hellish camping trip. A little red circle on her wrist looks like ringworm. Is she a Girl Scout? The work is unsettling and ambiguous, photographed with a lush, palpable color. Not one of the scenarios you might construct to explain the image is pleasant. It's like a still from a movie you haven't seen; you struggle to divine the story line.
Continuing the narrative theme, two conventional, even boring, forest images by John McLachlin become intriguing once you learn they're gay cruising spots in Toronto. In photos titled The Erotic Possibility of Melancholy, lonely shaded lanes and innocuous greenery suddenly transform into settings for trysts and intrigues. People are seeking other people among the trees and undercover cops. (Or is the cop part just a puritanical American thing?) Here, landscape is a stage for rendezvous and furtive passion.
Cropped, brushy images painted by Joy Garnett show the horrifying results of man screwing with nature. These "landscape" scenes of atomic explosions are conceptually provocative in the context of the show, although they are less resolved than other paintings by the artist in the same series. Individually, the paintings don't stand up that well. By focusing on indistinct parts of the atomic blast, the work breaks down from too little visual information.
German artist Oliver Boberg takes photographs of spindly trees and bland concrete structures. Beyond the foliage, or lack thereof, lies a white blankness, a nothingness. It appears the world beyond the Lookout Platform (2000) has been erased. In reality, the scenes are fake, carefully constructed small-scale models that the artist photographs in his studio. It's a Capricorn One kind of deception, but instead of Mars, we get 21st-century Germany with a hyper-bleakness.
Where Boberg's photos are spare and restrained, Rob de Mar presents a campy, over-the-top miniature nature that cries out for tiny garden gnomes. Starting with a bit of natural material, De Mar creates cute artificial outcroppings by coating shelf moss with plaster, and then applying a kitsch-tastic layer of green flocking. Private Property (2000) looks like a remote woodland outpost, with petite artificial pine trees and an obsessively crafted promontory of miniscule rocks, delicately balanced on top of one another. De Mar melds the craftsy and cute with the obsessive and strange.
Also working in three dimensions, Elizabeth McGrath evokes a mountain out of a worn acrylic blanket lying on the gallery floor. Through her stitching and shaping, a craggy peak is conjured out of the secondhand bedding. This symbolic landscape in burnt-orange plush is a consumer-culture castoff version of the Zen rock garden.
Wayne White spends a little too much time at the Salvation Army thrift store, too. His painting Ice Machine (2001) starts with a pungently mildewed framed landscape. Printed on yellowed cardboard, the clichéd "stunning mountain vista with stream" is obscured by three gargantuan intersecting white beams. They look like construction framing from Superman's fortress of solitude. "Ice" is helpfully written in frosty letters across a beam that disappears into the snowcapped mountain. White has even obsessively painted the beam's reflection into the water. It's a quirky take on manipulating found objects.
Whether or not you're fleeing a Mongol invasion, remember it's easier to admire nature when you aren't at her mercy. Thoreau had decent shelter at Walden Pond, and even neo-Luddite Ted Kaczynski had a shack -- although the "normal" Kaczynski brother, David, apparently spent time living in a hole in the ground in Big Bend. There you go! Bring your shovel and enjoy the great outdoors in affordable vacation housing for the whole family. Happy camping!
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