But is it Art?

Questioning beauty in the Berkshires

Tree1

We turn our eyes … to the most characteristic examples of modern landscape, and, I believe, the first thing that will strike us, is their cloudiness.

This 1846 John Ruskin quote was recently used not in connection with the paintings of J.M.W. Turner—daring for their time as they were—but to introduce an eclectic and ultra-contemporary selection of artworks called Badlands, now on view at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

For as long as I’ve been observing (and for a while, a part of) the contemporary art scene, I’ve watched artists struggle with how to depict nature in modern times. For many, traditional uninflected depictions of beautiful vistas seem impossible, given the compromised nature of what unspoiled landscape remains. Anyone taking a drive down the NYS Thruway, as I just did, must feel far removed from the days of the Hudson River School. (Even those artists were known to edit out man’s presence from their sublime interpretations.)

Tree2

But the paradox remains that no matter how dire the message of the artist, their job still seems to be to amaze, amuse, and awe us, as many of the participants in this show did. Take Jennifer Steinkamp’s video projection, shown above and at top. The 25-foot-high tree’s undulating branches go from winter bareness to green leaves to pink blossoms to russet, and many visitors were finding it mesmerizing. I was only slightly perturbed that the tree seemed to have maple tree leaves and cherry tree flowers.

Rockman

Also spectacular were the paintings of Alexis Rockman, who made a special trip to Antarctica so he could paint these icebergs, which you may take as symbols of global warming—or not. Rockman’s paintings manage to be unironically gorgeous, while J. Henry Fair’s hyped-up photographs of waste containment pools, (from a power plant in Niagara Falls, ugh), were horribly beautiful.

Terrarium

Finally, a few installations brought a welcome dose of lush greenery inside the museum. Vaughn Bell’s interactive terrariums let you put your head into the plexi cases and domes from below, while Yutaka Stone made a little jungle in a brightly sunlit corner of the MoCA, in which you’ll find tropical plants surrounding two beautifully carved white marble reliefs showing the LA freeway system.

Both the plants (ficus, alocasia, rubber plant, palms, other types) and the pristine white slabs are equally alluring. I think I saw a pretty bad infestation on one of the fica, but that’s their problem.

Marble

The last really good contemporary show around nature/landscape I saw was in Columbus in 94 or so. I highly recommend this one, which is in an amazing facility. Mass MoCA used to be a massive factory complex; only a fraction of the buildings are actually used by the museum, which is still the largest center for contemporary art in U.S.

Badlands is up through April 12, but this place is worth a special journey at any time. And of course the Berkshires are wonderful.

Posted by on February 18, 2009 at 4:45 am, in the category But is it Art?.
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11 Responses to “Questioning beauty in the Berkshires”

  1. I’m glad you brought art into the mix. I haven’t seen this show, but now that you suggest it, I should. A note, Alexis Rockman is a man, not a women-but honest mistake. His older work focused more on destruction of the world than anything strictly beautiful, so I would be interested to see this work.

    Artists these days are often interested in artificiality, the unnaturally natural, genetics, artifice, technology. Things that gardeners are interested as well.

    I am a landscape painter, and I can attest to the difficulty in making this work reflect our time and place. A great irony is that the Hudson Valley is arguably less “spoiled” than it was during the mid-19th century. Work, in its traditional forms, has been removed from the valley, the valley has been somewhat museum-ified. I think dis-interest in painting beautiful landscape scenery has more to do with doubt or mistrust of traditional conceptions of beauty, the feminist critique of traditional conceptions (see Kolodny “Lay of the Land), and Marxist issues with ownership, aristocracy, and power.

    Sorry to be so academic, but I am glad you brought this up, a subject of great interest to me as a landscape painter. See some
    of my paintings at:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/frontyardphoto/Paintings#5301550754726140306

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for the Rockman correction Frank; I have made the change. I must say add that–though I take your point about the influence of Marxism and so on–I maintain that conceptual views of landscape today are very much influenced by the compromised natural environment. As a curator, I worked on a show with photographers (a couple of whom are in this show) whose work addressed specific events like Chernobyl, Three Mile island, and Love Canal. Nonetheless, many of these were very beautiful works.

  3. commonweeder says:

    Elizabeth, I made three trips to this show with various grandsons(all under the age of 12) in tow and there was enough that was weird and wonderful in this show to provoke and keep the conversations going. Of course there are other weird and wonderful exhibits that will engage children. The last time we went the Sol Levitt exhibit was up and Ryan was not impressed but went home and started making his own color studies. Mass MoCA also has a great kid space with special exhibits – and room and ‘stuff’to make art.

  4. Point well taken. Yes, the environmental viewpoint has been predominant. Funny, for me, photographers have been more inspirational than the painters of late. I have been interested in Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, Mark Klett, and probably a million others. Traditional &/or Romantic landscape Beauty had been the domain of landscape painters, Ansel Adams somehow memorializes them & it, but through photography. Afterward, photographers are more free to see a new beauty, often beauty inherent to a hazardous or altered landscape. Photographs being, in part, more a language of our time and free from the conceits of painting. That is not to say painting isn’t of importance, but has complications as you suggested in your piece above.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I adored the LeWitt show. BTW, it is up for 25 years! The kids I saw there seemed to like it. It is really a kid-friendly space and they are also very generous about taking photos and so on. Also, the Porches, the boutique hotel nearby, is wonderful to stay at.

  6. TC says:

    I love art and the human, or otherwise, creativity it shows, and even inspires. However, I have reservations when some works seem to depict an unnatural aspect that skewers Nature’s beauty, such as Jennifer Steinkamp’s video projection of a “tree.” I say keep modernity out of the trees. Of course my rant is by nature purely subjective and may be dismissed easily via the “Delete Comment” button.

  7. I’ve been meaning to get up to MoCA – clearly now’s the time. (even if only to see a terrarium I can fit my whole head inside!)

  8. Barbara says:

    Please keep painting landscapes Frank. It’s real and you are very good.

    Tip – go to Flower Show site for Amtrak discount. I have always been inspired (and amazed) both as Hell’s Kitchen and now Hudson Highlands gardener.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Frank,

    If you are still checking in, I did visit your site and liked the paintings a lot. Good for you!

    Another landscape photographer I know, John Pfahl, does some great work. Do you know it? John lives in Buffalo, but has a lot of books out and shows all over.

    We used some of Mark Klett’s work in the compromised landscape show I mentioned before.

  10. Thanks for the look-see & compliments. I do not know John Pfahl by name, but I will look his work up. I try to keep up with contemporary landscape artists, in all media.

  11. Barbara,

    Thanks for the support!
    I’ve checked the Amtrak discount, 20% off $180/two. I’ve found a cheaper way, thats NJtransit to Trenton and then Septa to Market. It would be like 75 dollars round trip for two, much better deal. Bus is still best deal, just like the train more.

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