Early American Landscape Painting The Seed Of American Exceptionalism

The American architect Louis Kahn once said “Art does what nature can not do”.  I often think about that quote, in my ceaseless wonder of the best installation artist I know, Mother Nature. The exhibition ‘a certain kind of Eden’, at Burning in Water Art gallery in Chelsea, exquisitely explores the relationship of the artists’ creation in response to those by Nature.

Burning in Water Art, is the new kid on the block in the Chelsea neighborhood. A former surgeon, Barry Malin, the gallery’s founder, decided to share his art collection with the world, via purpose driven, activist oriented exhibitions. This show, his second, is a group exhibition of works, which address both the fragility and resiliency of the natural environment in the face of looming ecological threats. Works in various media by Matthew Brandt, Kadar Brock, Sam Falls, Valerie Hegarty, Cristina Lei Rodriguez, Kasper Sonne and Philip Taaffe are included. Many of the works were created on site-specific locations and involved nature within the process of it’s making. For example, Mathew Brandt traveled America to photographically document the endangered bodies of water within the country.  Brandt collected water samples at each lake site and used that same water within the photographic development process to alter and affect the once natural beauty of the scene represented. The polluted water he uses becomes both the subject and the object of the photos. His work is oddly beautiful and disturbing at the same time.  Another artist in the show, who fully engages the natural elements in his art making is Sam Falls.  The show includes a sculptural piece made of logs, which came from his childhood back yard in Vermont. He dipped the logs in various dyes with the help of his mom. Falls collaborates with sunshine in his large painted tarps that hang on the wall. The canvas tarps were initially primed with dyes then overlaid with ropes and then left in the sun to fade.  The shape of the rope remains sharply beside the sun bleached colors. Very pretty and lively pieces which celebrate the power of our planet’s ever renewing daylight.  Danish artist Kasper Sonne uses the natural element of fire in his burnt canvas called Borderline.  He apparently ran around with the canvas on fire as the wind controlled how the canvas burned. Sonne’s other work in the show is from a series called TXC. Those works are not done with exposure to the elements, but instead are made from exposure to the toxic industrial chemicals threatening nature’s  survival.

I attended an artist talk hosted at the gallery between the artist Valerie Hegarty and Hrag Vartanian, editor in chief of the esteemed cultural newsletter Hyperallergic.  Hrag and Valerie have teamed up for public talks in the past when Ms Hegarty’s work was shown at the Brooklyn Museum. The conversation went form zero to unbelievably interesting very quickly. While the topic was purportedly on the art included within the exhibition, the underlying political implications of landscape art became center stage. Believe it or not, the art speak shed light on today’s (scary?) Republican rant to “Make America Great Again!”

 Ms Hegarty’s piece in the show ‘a certain type of Eden’ is a work from 2008 titled ‘Return to the Catskills’.  Her work is based on an 1859 painting with the same title by Asher Durand, who was one of the founding members of the Hudson River School.  Ms Hegarty’s version of Durand’s painting, is a life size sculpture/painting with a realistically rendered three-dimensional tree that sprouts out beneath the gilded frame of her repainted reproduction of Durand’s idyllic landscape painting.  The appropriated Durand within the gold frame of Ms Hegarty’s work is weathered and has holes that imply time has eaten away at the canvas. The distressed Durand painting within the artwork taps into the historic ‘then’, of romantic American landscape painting. However, like all great works of art, Hegarty manages to freeze a moment of time, all the while also actively letting the art breath.

Hegarty’s reference to the famous Hudson River School sparked a conversation about America’s early history. Artists from the 19th century Hudson River School art movement are what established America’s identity of discovery, exploration and settlement. Unlike Europe, with its centuries old base of culture, America started less than 300 years ago out of wilderness. Instead of Caravaggio in awe inspiring baroque churches we have (or had) abundant virgin land. Early American painters portrayed the American landscape with cathedral style lighting in ways that suggest American is a God given opportunity to discover and conquer.  The expansive empty vistas in early American landscapes lack habitation and look lonely.  Rarely is there a sign of man. Occasionally you will see a tree stumped suggesting that the idealized virgin territory is begging for civilization.  The utopian promise of these ‘everything is perfect’ paintings leave out a lot of the actual history of America’s foundation.  Both Vartanian and Hegarty emphasized that the scenery depicted in early American expansionist landscape painting was fabricated and never actually existed. The glorious forested tableaus were composed from compilations and are  not plein-air renderings of actual sites. These landscapes serve more as a portrait of the American ideology to constantly build and reinvent itself. Ironically, a 50 story building is going up adjacent to Burning in Water Art’s location. 

Ms Hegarty related how she grew up in a faux Colonial house in Massachusetts. She imagined her great great grandparents were off the Mayflower. As she grew older she learned that her parents were immigrants. The early American artifacts on the fireplace mantel she latter learned were from the hardware store. She offered this personal history as a comment on today’s hot topic of Nativism. Her parents had internalized American history as their own so they would feel a part of it and fit in.  As an artist, she is constantly questioning and wiggling, within the context of art history. Where does she fit in? 

If you look closely at the Hegarty piece in the show you will notice a little stuffed woodpecker on the upper left corner. It is pecking away on the outside of the frame. It appears to have escaped the interior painted landscape where perhaps the woodpecker once lived, but it is now turning against itself, seeking revenge and attacking the painting.  The bird, like Ms Hegarty is poking holes. “Making something ,destroying something, and remaking something is an integral part of the art making process” says Hegarty. While things falling a part can cause anxiety, Hegarty embraces the decay.  Decay is more real than seeking a false and simple narrative as  shown in the original ‘Return to the Catskills’ from 1859 or implicit in the credo “Make America great again”

The strong sculptural veracity of the sculpture’s tree roots are stunning. While the canvas painting on top is in decline, the tree looks to be growing. It is burrowing into the ground reclaiming the land. Vartanian spoke about the inherent link between land and ownership. Vartanian noted this even applies to Google maps. His comment reminded me of Tolstoy’s revelation at the conclusion of War and Peace. Tolstoy says, that in the end, Nature owns everything.

Link To Work Mentioned  

Words: Lizanne Merrill Photo: Meredith Dawson © artlyst 2016