The age-old theme of humanity’s relationship to nature is rampant in galleries lately. No wonder, as here in the United States, we contend with prodigious snowfalls, devastating storms, drought, and forest fires.
Some of these exhibitions have been catchalls, with parameters too large to tease out strong points of view. Two savvy artist-curated shows up now take more conceptually refined, idiosyncratic approaches.
Painter Steve Locke organized “Arcadia: Thoughts on the Contemporary Pastoral” at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery. Locke, who grew up in Detroit and lives in Boston, looks at the natural world through a city kid’s lens: Nature is giant, foreign, awesome, and threatening, and whatever people build or use to shape it or shelter themselves can be seen as the tense intersection between nature and culture.
Those intersections pulse with vibrant, fraught exchange. In LaToya Frazier’s video “Self Portrait (United States Steel),” the artist’s body represents nature as she stands bare-chested in her grandmother’s Pennsylvania home, breathing with difficulty. Beside that intimate image, she places an industrial landscape studded with smokestacks. The clouds they spew recall the billowing grace of those in Hudson River School landscapes; Frazier takes that icon of the sublime and inverts it.
The volley between nature and culture gets refracted in painter Matthew Noonan’s works, which toy with perceptions of indoors and outdoors. In “Falling (For Ellen),” a stacked triptych, still lifes of white flowers set against landscapes frame one of a paintbrush-filled bottle set before a noble stag. Lines weave the three canvases into one tight composition, but what’s inside and what’s outside? It’s a riddle; the backgrounds are other paintings, and nature’s wonder, here, is all inside the artist’s imagination.
After storms, Marie Lorenz scavenges along the shoreline. She rolls what nature has coughed up in ink and prints it in concentric circles on paper, as in “Fence, Bottle, Basket, Glass.” Her materials are manmade, uncovered by natural forces. These mesmerizing mandalas embrace sacred and profane, transmuting trash into pattern and ritual.
Eirik Johnson photographs carvings in tree trunks. The titles quote the carvings (and their sometimes misplaced apostrophes). For “The Smith’s,” he uses a filter to soak the scene in sweet, electrified blue. His saturated color stirs up romantic sentiment that matches the gesture of cutting your name into a tree — a bold declaration, but in the bigger picture, so very puny.
In the face of nature’s force and endurance, most people will be dwarfed and forgotten. That comes across strongly in Ryan Arthurs’s photos of a canoe trip with friends in Labrador. Protected by only what they can carry, these men look resourceful and vulnerable in “Untitled 207, Labrador,” as they survey their cooking supplies on the back of an overturned canoe.
The deeply layered “Arcadia: Thoughts on the Contemporary Pastoral” has more, including “Getting Nowhere,” painter Joe Wardwell’s wild feat of text, expressionist abstraction, and landscape, and Frank Meus-chke’s extraordinary, quiet paintings of Brooklyn, N.Y.’s tamed landscape, Prospect Park.
We tend to pit nature against humanity, but that’s a false dichotomy. In “Arcadia,” the relationship between the two is as rich and complicated as it is between any mother and child.
Landscapes as desire
“Landscape as Fetish,” a clever, inward-looking exhibition organized by photographer Greer Muldowney at Gallery Kayafas, scrutinizes notions of landscape as products of our own desire.
Jesse Burke’s photographs of his young daughter Clover on their expeditions into the woods poignantly grasp that tension: Burke wants his daughter to love the wild with the same passion he does. Will she? Who knows. In “I See a Darkness,” Clover holds a fern in front of her face as if it were a mask; innocent, sweet, and playful, she’s still as much a mystery as nature itself — as is everything one loves best.
For “Antipode,” Jonathan Gitelson located the point exactly across the globe from his Vermont home in the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles from Perth, Australia. He wanted to go there. The installation comprises e-mails between the artist and transport companies refusing to take him on that journey, and Google Earth’s video of the site. Desire foiled.
Other artists examine our rush to commodify nature. Mark Dorf takes spectacular photos of dramatic scenes, such as the mountains in “untitled33,” and digitally cuts up and collages them. It’s a cubist mountain range with dizzying dips and climbs, a catalog of many perspectives mashed together.
Anastasia Samoylova works with pictures found on the Internet, crowd-sourcing natural beauty. She prints out several images of lightning or rainbows, then folds and sculpts them into a 3-D form, and photographs the result. Some of these work better than others; when working with rainbows, it’s hard to get past the cliché.
Timothy Briner spent time living in six US communities called Boonville, examining with his camera assumptions we have about small towns. He doesn’t upend those assumptions, but he captures poignant, granular detail; I love the single light shining on the worn and overgrown backstop in “Basketball Goal, Boonville, IN, 2008.”
Art can fetishize what it depicts, but it can also interrogate subject and viewer. This show begins to unpack the elusive, magnetic force of desire itself, and how we project it on the landscape.Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.