What is a landscape? What exactly constitutes its borders and ambiguities? “Now Here: Theoretical Landscapes,” a new exhibit at The Carnegie in Covington, explores this complicated question, displaying a cornucopia of artworks by twenty-one regional artists who, through varied media, attempt to redefine the landscape genre.
It becomes immediately evident upon entering the gallery that any traditional definition of landscape has been abandoned; no pastoral panoramas of greenery or horizons dividing sea and sky appear anywhere in “Theoretical Landscapes.” Instead, we are left with a playful catalogue of re-envisioned landscapes: personal landscapes, acoustic landscapes, tactile landscapes. Anything that can be conceptualized spatially, temporally and mnemonically can be reimagined as a landscape that unfolds within the gallery, expertly curated by Matt Distel. That the proposed landscapes are so outlandish creates a cohesive tension throughout the exhibit between the real and imaginary, the past and the present. This frictional dichotomy allows for the artworks to engage not in an argument, but a dialogue with each other about what a theoretical landscape really is.
Even the etymology for landscape is vague—the English word derives from the Dutch term landschap, meaning “region.” Yet for centuries, what constituted a Western landscape followed a careful regimen. Although steeped in spiritual practices that originate in Greek and Roman wall painting, the practice of depicting realist scenery flourished in the 17th century in the Dutch Republic. It eventually grew in popularity among the Romantic movement and later in the United States among the Hudson River School movement, which contained artists who intensely depicted the preserved wilderness of the Hudson Valley. Although Impressionists such as Van Gogh and Monet updated the landscape to include their own distinct textures and sentiments, the emphasis remained on land. As previously noted, this example of the landscape genre is hardly to be seen in the gallery space, although its history haunts the artworks that have broken from the orthodox meaning.
An installation titled “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” a collaboration between Bill Ross and taxidermy-art outfit Meddling With Nature, achieves a sprawling texture of phantasmagoria as an altered dimension for the setting of Alice in Wonderland. The artists reconstruct this childhood fable, strewing taxidermied raccoons and a contorted goat among domestic wreckage that might be found at a trailer park to create a sense of wilderness. Fantastical paintings of animals in wooded surroundings hang like windows to another world on the wall behind the installation.
Many of the featured artworks incorporate the artist’s own personal history, such as in Emily Hanako Momohara’s “Angel Island” print series, which consists of hypothetical terrains made of the elemental; rocks, dirt and delicate flowers caught in a halo of light comprise dreamed islands entrenched in the ancestry of Momohara’s family, who immigrated from Okinawa to Hawaii. In the installation piece “Petrosyllabic Resonator II,” sculptor Caleb Marhoover records childhood stories onto an album which spins on a record player. The audio of the artist’s voice is then activated onto wooden soundboards that shift a layer of sand into transitory landscapes. Another example of past and present tenses intertwining to determine ever-changing landscapes exists in Valerie Fuchs’ “on the one hand…and the other,” an interactive piece that utilizes video channels to project footage from two photographs onto the floor. Visitors are encouraged to shape the light with their hands, in part helping landscape the image in real time. Instances of virtual landscapes often provide subtle but meaningful glimpses into the impermanence of environments. C. Jacqueline Wood’s mesmerizing seven-minute video “Moving Pictures (Searching for Horizon Lines)” consists of literal pictures tacked up to a wall as a breeze enters the room. As the pictures move, their afterimage continues to show. Continuing the exposure of the first image into the next layers one landscape over another, achieving a sense of fleeting multidimensionality.
Several paintings in the exhibit integrate the actual matter of the landscapes they depict. In Specimens, Marhoover creates six anthotypes of hands holding fruit by using a faint violet hue made by the pigment of crushed blackberries, which were gathered from the nostalgic farmland of his boyhood. In another case of land inhabiting art, “Terminus” by Tim McMichael stipples volcanic ash and coal dust to portray a dark skyline above a vast glacier. The triptych, which measures 33’’ x 90,” evokes a magical realm that gestures both toward the Impressionist’s definition of landscape as well as a more contemporary perspective. The objects used from nature—even “sunlight” is among the listed media in “Specimens”—recontextualize the landscape not as a subject for portrayal, but as art itself.
If there are conventional ideas of landscape present in the exhibit, they are explored in unconventional ways. Selections from Joe Girandola’s series “Background Check” consist of paintings made exclusively of multicolored duct tape that portray backgrounds in famous works of art. Focusing on the unfocused with an atypical medium allows the imagery to be newly revisited, somewhat familiar but completely original. If Western landscapes from artists such as Ansel Adams and Minor White in the 19th and early 20th centuries helped mythologize a national identity, the diverse theoretical landscapes featured in this exhibit do all they can to deconstruct that identity, re-intuiting the landscape’s purpose to fulfill a more intimate and inter-dimensional effort. One can feel the collective expansive history and specificity of the landscape genre undone in Michael Scheurer’s untitled mixed media works that fuse cartography and drawing in collages that seem like the graphic version of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique.
Many of Michael Stillion’s oil paintings invoke impossible proportions. “Hermit Hut” portrays a teetering wooden structure, drawn in an aesthetic that recalls computer-generated animation, while his “Sculpture” paintings—also oils—depict swirling dreamscapes that marry physical land and the unconscious. His paintings are visually grotesque, their subjects orbiting within a gravity of disorder if not de-centered completely. The title of his “Sculpture” series suggests that even the equators between art forms become blurred when dealing in landscape.
Reforging the boundaries of a tradition-steeped genre that spans millennia and countless cultures makes one contemplate the idea of “landscape” in our everyday lives. Ultimately, the gallery space becomes a landscape all its own, a quilt whose topography is stitched from dream and memory, from the real and the fictional. Consequently, the verbalized “landscape” is something to consider. Even Distel half-joked in the exhibit’s reception talk that he should be called a “landscaper” instead of “curator,” the latter a title and verb he says is thrown around too often in our present culture of Instagram curators and sandwich curators.
It is relevant to historicize the theoretical landscapes of other cultures when viewing these proposals. As the text on the exhibit wall acknowledges, landscape is a fluid genre, enduring as a genre and explored contrastingly between art movements and societies. Chinese landscape sought to navigate spiritual realms as well as physical ones. Take for instance, Zhao Mengfu’s “The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu,” made during the Yuan period, ca. 1287. The tranquil setting, interspersed with bonsai trees and a small stream, is purely within the imagination of its subject. This abstract approach to landscape predates the Dutch tradition by hundreds of years. Fast forward 650 years later, and artists like Roberto Matta and James Gleeson are painting inscapes—surrealist visualizations of the human psyche rooted in the subconscious that art critic Carol Diehl claimed were “landscapes of the soul.” Clearly, for centuries artists have been constantly reconsidering the role of landscape. But why do we need to constantly revisit the practice? The artists at The Carnegie’s exhibit seem to landscape in order to make sense out of the world and its chaos, their process and product often therapeutic. But the therapy, or anti-therapy in some cases, is predominantly for the artists, not the viewers. For the most part, the landscapes featured are the artists’ own personal ones, an invitation frequently not extended to the public; understanding the landscapes, then, require a form of trespassing.
The artists in “Now Here: Theoretical Landscapes” take another look at the criteria by which we measure landscapes, remapping the genre’s parameters as most know them to include nearly anything that can be shaped not only in physical space, but in memory and sound. So, what is a landscape? After viewing this exhibit, it becomes apparent that no simple or satisfying answer to this question exists. But this, ultimately, is what makes “Now Here: Theoretical Landscapes” such a fulfilling, ambiguous experience, one that will linger in the mind long after visiting.
“Now Here: Theoretical Landscapes” is on display at The Carnegie through April 18.