Tom McGrath, Untitled, 2005

As the often-quoted British cultural geographer and scholar Denis Cosgrove once declared, “Landscape is a way of seeing the world.”1 Twentieth-century developments in critical theory helped bring the concept of “landscape” as a social, political, economic, cultural, and gendered construct to the forefront. So much so that in the twenty-first century the genre comes pre-loaded in both meaning and intent, in both the choice and the depiction of what is being presented or “framed” as landscape. Landscapes are no longer, nor have they ever been, neutral — an idea succinctly defined by American philosopher Holmes Rolston, III: “Landscape is personal and cultural history made visible.”2 With this understanding, an exploration of the genre can be both highly problematic and incredibly liberating, as is evidenced by the range of artworks, media, and styles presented by the artists in Anti-Grand.

The title of the exhibition references these newer tendencies. Anti-Grand suggests an approach to the topic that is opposite one of awe and reverie of the past, approaches that are now difficult to consider without an implicit sense of irony. Contemporary Perspectives on Landscape emphasizes the role of the artist’s and/or viewer’s choice of framing device as applied to both the represented scenery and the genre at large. Engaging humor, tenderness, ambivalence, and respect, these artists look at many facets of this subject. Unifying the exhibition are issues of representation that are inherent to the genre and the various ways in which artists have self-reflexively considered their relationship to the artistic subject.

As a starting point, the exhibition considers the idea of landscape as the “aesthetic category par excellence.”3 This notion is explored in Kim Keever’s video and photographs of saccharinely sublime landscapes, constructed in 200-gallon tanks filled with water, the experimental prints of photographer Mathew Brandt, the voyeuristic dioramas of Patrick Jacobs, and the panoramic painting-within-a-painting in the work by Adam Cvijanovic. Kristin Holder and Linda Lynch address the ongoing conversation between artists and nature in their works that reference art from the past (Leonardo da Vinci and Robert Smithson, respectively). Katrín Elvarsdóttir, the artists collective Flatform, and Jon-Phillip Sheridan all explore how landscape is perceived and framed, both by the camera and the viewer. The landscape is alternatively considered as a conduit of information, as seen in Justin Berry’s decontextualized fantasy-book covers, Doug Beube’s and Guy Laramée’s mixed-media works made from old maps and books, Chun-yi Lee’s paintings of traditional-looking Chinese landscapes made by applying ink in visible grids upon paper with cork stamps, and the animated satellite imagery of Gerco de Ruijter which interprets the landscape as a vestige of time.    

The landscape is simultaneously considered as both a lived and living space, as demonstrated in Martín Bonadeo’s installation that synthesizes the visual and the olfactory, the large-scale terrariums of Vaughn Bell, Elisheva Biernoff’s images of ecologically sensitive areas projected on mist, and the cinematic paintings of Tom McGrath, which inhabit the banal perspective of seeing the landscape through a car window. This phenomenological understanding of the landscape is then reconsidered from the perspective of digitally simulated environments, as through Jon Rafman’s screen captures of Google Streetview’s more decisive moments, the pseudo-documentary photographs of species and environments created by the Institute of Critical Zoologists, and Jesse McLean’s never-ending scroll through a digital mountainscape. The exhibition also presents a small selection of the expansive worlds navigable in computer and video games created by Ezra Hanson-White, Ed Key with David Kanaga, and Devine Lu Linvega.

All of the works selected for Anti-Grand were created since 2000, in order to focus on art made well after the initial developments of the modern and popular discourse on environmentalism and sustainability. Now that “going green” is as much a marketing tool as a call to action and the green industry has its own global platform, the artistic motivation to bring attention to travesties, abuses, and crises in the environment can seem somewhat remiss. Yet a contemporary exhibition on the theme of landscape is continuously relevant because the social and political discourse on nature, and the environment is constantly being reformatted and expanded, as recent natural disasters and escalated political activism have demonstrated. Although there are innovative approaches to art focused on environmentalism involving current social practices such as crowdsourcing, documentation, and community education, one could argue that there is something of a crisis in terms of addressing the theme of landscape (as opposed to “nature” in general) without veering too closely to polemics or naïve sensualism. The artists in Anti-Grand are meeting this challenge in ways that directly engage the environment, but through highly personal investigations into the subject matter, grounded in knowledge of the landscape genre’s rich history.

N. Elizabeth Schlatter
and Kenta Murakami, ’15

Notes:

1. Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 19.
2. Holmes Rolston, III, “Does Aesthetic Appreciation of Landscapes Need to Be Science-Based?” British Journal of Aesthetics.  Vol. 35, No. 5 (October 1995): 380.
3. Among the many philosophers and art historians who have suggested this concept, Jacob Wamberg notes Joachim Ritter as putting forth this idea in his 1963 essay “Landschaft: Zur Funktion des ästhetischen in der modernen Gesellschaft,” as cited in “The Art Seminar” in Landscape Theory, ed. by Rachael Ziady DeLue and James Elkins (New York: Routledge, 2008), 95 and 151.

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