Monday, September 15, 2014

The Landscape Illusion

Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington. February, 2014. Jamie Bollenbach, All rights reserved.
One of my dad's standard jokes was to gaze upon some impossibly impressive Alaskan vista, like a smoke reddened sky blazing behind a white conical volcano reflected in a golden ocean, and go:

"That looks like a terrible painting."

Indeed it does. I am suspicious of landscapes. The unoccupied landscape is now so ordinary an artistic subject that a lot of people assume that what artists do is make landscapes.

Pure landscapes before recent times- in the sense of the land as subject itself unoccupied by human beings - are comparatively rare. Here is a spectacular Brueghel (Hunters in the Snow), a very quick sketch by Rembrandt (View of Diemen), a Song Dynasty masterpiece by Xia Gui, and below, the Venus and Adonis by Veronese in Seattle, a painting that is, in my view, nearly perfect in color. (And here is ANOTHER reminder to GO SEE THE ACTUAL PAINTING.)

Notice this: Nature does not exist separate from human beings. There is almost always evidence: people, buildings, places, scenes. We are in Nature.

The modern landscape with its Romantic idea of purity is new, a reaction I think to the rise of the Industrial Age. In these, we are out of Nature, watching it from afar, or it is a backdrop to the narrow interest in family members, or a snap-it record, a substitute for even being where you are. Casual painting especially is besotted with nature as a heavenly place remote from us.

The problem with heaven is that you are under no obligation to take care of it.

There is a rise of a new landscape, less humbled by it, more transformed and alarmed. Just in Seattle, my friend Mary Iverson turns the shipping container into a rigorous visual metaphor of the commodification of Nature.  Another friend and fellow University of Washington grad Cable Griffith creates disarmingly charming paintings of the natural world implied and negotiated by video games.  My own work often contains the shapes and forms and spaces of nature, but with its specific contents, trees, water, grass, mountains, etc, all pushed aside by the ghosts of the forms of the remembered human being.

Almost everywhere artists look now, Nature has been touched, reshaped, gardened, poisoned, idolized, dominated, yet our most common portrayal of nature is as a kind of unreachable Eden.  But the old work almost always portrayed us as inside Nature, and it asked us to perceive our relationship to it, even if it was Veronese's idyllic god-world.  An artist who paints Nature as untouched now is hiding both the modern truth of what is happening to the world, and the old truth that we exist within it.

An uncritical, typically glorious earthporn photo can be uplifting, but it can also hide the truth. If you ask the Inupiaq elders in northern Alaska, the very color of the sky has changed.  The blue sky, the golden sun, the pretty and perfect structures in my own black and white snaps. It's a half truth, and we need much more.

So-  before anything else, before concept, before expression, before style, before technique, see. See fully, see comprehensively, see what it is that actually surrounds you.