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Islip Art Museum


Sustainable Reverie
Landscapeism exhibition reviewed by Janet M. Goleas

How do we identify the landscape? Is it the place of pastoral outlooks that exists only in the natural world? Does it include the patches of sod along suburban sidewalks, office complexes and shopping malls? What about the earthly remains after deforestation, industrialization and the building trade have had their way, the panoramic golf courses, cemeteries and landfills that dot our maps or television? Is a landscape on television still a landscape?

In the annals of art history, the landscape has assumed many forms from the generic vistas of the Early Renaissance to Brueghel's Arcadian hillsides or the luminous skies of Rubens's Het Steen. Thomas Cole's America possessed a Godly presence that helped form much of our early thinking on the sublime in this so-called new world. No less, for that matter, did Ansel Adams's panoramas of Yosemite Valley inform our thinking about the transcendence and greatness of the natural world. In our lifetime the radical defiance of artists such as Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt redefined our concept of the land and its potential within the realm of aesthetics. In 1967, Alan Sonfist's act of artistic protectionism, Time Landscape, resulted in a patch of prime, unadulterated real estate in which New York's pre-colonial countryside has been preserved. The fenced landscape celebrates a New York before the gridwork of industrialization carved its way through lower Manhattan. And now, as evidenced here in Islip Art Museum's exhibition, Landscapeism, the latest generation of artists to explore the landscape tradition has forged new paths through technology, cyberspace, fiction, climate change and utopianism.

The nine artists selected by curator Joseph R. Wolin share various themes as they relate to the erosion of our natural world, the advance of modern technology and the fictionalizing of our hallowed natural monuments. Instead of being airlifted into the Northwest Territories and dropped down with only a compass and a pocketknife, Oliver Warden's alter ego, Robot Big Foot, wanders the badlands of computer games. Like a digital version of the lone reveler in Casper David Friedrich's The Wanderer above the Mists, Warden navigates through the game world to its very fringes where the technological landscape becomes inhospitable -- unsustainable. Here, at the margins of the computer graphics of Sierra Entertainment's sci-fi game, "Tribes" the artist literally goes to the ends of this world where the game can no longer be played. It's a cyber desert where the land stops, usually with a sharp and unnatural cliff that slices into an endless horizon line or a rippling body of water. There roams his intrepid explorer, who, like a landscape photographer in a fictional world, documents his surroundings. Warden described his body double taking a running leap off the high rim of this endgame cliff. He twisted around mid-air and just before dropping into cyber-oblivion snapped a picture of the edge of the world behind him.

Similarly, Dan Torop investigates a surreal world in his photographs of urban scenes, oceans and shore, fauna and fowl. Torop occasionally manipulates his photographs, adding elements where they might least be expected. The artist's seaside chickens superimposed against a coastline is classic photomontage, but a lazy swan floating in New York City's East River, unlikely as it may be, is a straight C-print. He pokes fun at our thinking on photography as a conveyance of truth and in doing so tips the model on its head. Here Torop's Rosetta Stone is the software he developed called "Ocean", in which a flat screen monitor displays a virtual ocean of undulating pink waves. By maneuvering the controller, museum visitors can participate in a kind of computer alchemy, altering the shape, coloration, and climate of this oceanscape with the push of a button.

Several of the artists selected by Wolin reflect on the condition and possibilities of authenticity. Lauren Warner's geyser paintings of Yellowstone National Park examine nature's glory as well as its diminishment. Warner showcases the star quality of Mother Nature - she has even installed an IKEA bench within comfortable viewing distance to her paintings. Circumscribed by boardwalks, fencing and barricades, our natural wonders have been eclipsed by the tourist-safe environments that are erected around them. Whether it's the $40,000,000 overlook designed to teeter at the rim of the Grand Canyon or numerous safeguards that protect tourists from peril, what is created is an orthodoxy that can't help but standardize the experience. As such, any encounter with our magnificent phenomena is eclipsed by the primary objective of the park service, which is to indemnify the custodial agencies that maintain them. Warner's images bring this schism into tight focus. Is it possible to have an authentic experience in such a controlled environment? Absolutely! As long as the central experience revolves around the National Park Service.

Blaise Drummond creates a utopian model for addressing social woes in A Project for a Quarry and a Mountain, in an ode to the earth art and land reclamation projects of the 1970s. Here, Drummond reduces the scale both in ambition and size, creating a sense of balance in the altered landscape. For Drummond, if every overturned stone was aesthetically placed to enhance its surroundings instead of simply being dumped on its side, society's ills would be that much diminished.

Jude Miller also reflects on the concept of authenticity. Like a botanist, Miller collects plant specimens and analyzes them, dissects them, and then, as if assembling molecules, recreates them from crepe paper, beads and other kitschy, craft materials. With a high focus lens and uncommon patience, Miller achieves a breathtaking level of verisimilitude. In fact, one would never guess that her Tradescantia virginiana Spiderwort is not of the earth. In Ben Bulben, Rowena Dring also uses the types of domestic craftwork that were once reserved for knitting circles and quilt clubs. Dring combines the utility of a Craft Master paint-by-number set with the travels and inspiration of William Butler Yeats. Envisioning the Irish landscape in Yeats's play, "The Land of Heart's Desire", she renders it inch by inch with stitch work and hundreds of tiny pieces of color-coded fabric. The patchwork imagery is breathtaking in its realism and yet it reminds us that humankind has assimilated the natural world to the degree that it can now be translated with a cultural codex.

Much of the art in Landscapeism highlights cultural mysticism, too. Karen Azoulay invites us inside a fantastical rainbow of color and form in The Evening Canopy and the Sunset Hour, a towering grotto that is positively convulsive in its ornamentation. It has the ambiance of a sacred place that is filled with romance and mystery, mourning and ecstasy. The structure, assembled from hand dyed string and found objects, stands like an immense sentinel guarding its own secrets. Adam Shecter pays tribute to Akira Kurasawa's Dreams, and its magical forest with his animated film short, Ghosts. Mystical and trancelike, Shecter's characters float as if scrolling down-screen through a thickly fluid netherworld that is largely unknowable. Romantic and abstract, the accompanying musical score heightens the film's emotionality and ambiguity. And finally, John Gerrard's modest photograph, Forest Girl, depicts a young girl covered with greenery as if she has sprouted her own vines. It bears remembering that certain ancient Europeans welcomed spring by donning children with flowers and leaves. Indeed, adolescence is marked by wild growth, chaos, and transformation, and here, as a sort of homage to time itself, Gerrard makes note of its eternal passage. Where others have invoked a human presence, Gerrard is the only artist in this group to actually use a human form, shrouded as it is in nature's symbolism. In doing so, he extends the concept of landscape to the human mind and its ability (and its limitations) to ponder infinity, fate and transcendence.

Ms. Goleas is an artist/educator living in East Hampton, NY