“Composite Landscapes: Photomontage and Landscape Architecture,” which runs through Sept. 2 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is a relatively small show. It consists of some 50 discrete items — photographs, architectural renderings, books, drawings, works in mixed media — and a video display on a pair of flat-screen televisions. The display features renderings of multiple projects from leading international landscape firms, such as Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and James Corner Field Operations.
The televisions rest on oversize wooden easels, a witty touch that Mrs. Gardner would likely have approved of. She surely would have approved of the somewhat incongruous inclusion of a travel album of hers from an 1883 journey to Southeast Asia.
Relative smallness of scale does not mean smallness of scope, relative or otherwise. The ostensible subject of “Composite Landscapes” is straightforward enough. It offers examples of photomontage: the combining of two or more photographic images to make a single whole, a whole that usually (though not always) announces its combinatorial origins. Most of these examples, as the subtitle suggests, are used in the context of landscape architecture. Photomontage is an ideal format for architects to give clients a sense of what a proposed design should look look like. It allows designers to elide impossibility no less than space and time.
The question becomes what approach or approaches to take toward the subject. Historical (the development of photomontage)? Technical (how it’s done)? Aesthetic (the presentation of particularly attractive examples)? Interdisciplinary (the relationship among the various media available to practitioners)? Even, for lack of a better word, epistemological (the interplay of illusion and reality)?
“Composite Landscapes” touches on all of these. Which is where the relationship between scale and scope in the exhibition becomes problematic. Given a much bigger show, all of these approaches (each valid and stimulating) might not only be accommodated but done so with clarity and in depth. That was the case, for example, with “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition last fall that looked at not-dissimilar matters within a much larger context.
The Gardner show, in contrast, feels confusing. The images have a cool, aloof attractiveness well suited to the cool, aloof attractiveness of the museum’s Hostetter Gallery. Some of them go well beyond that, offering very considerable visual pleasure. Gary Hilderbrand’s photo collages “Almost Nothing” and “Glass House Reflections II” combine the landscape surrounding Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House with an elegance worthy of both those structures. Jan Dibbets’s composite photograph “Land-Sea, G:83” triangulates earth, water, and sky to superbly geometric effect. Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha’s “Delta Crossings, #1-4” were executed as part of their study of Mississippi River flood control. These acrylics and pastels on paper serve another purpose, however unintentional: as the ravishing answer to the question of what would the artistic progeny look like had Helen Frankenthaler married J. M. W. Turner instead of Robert Motherwell.
More often, the appeal of the works in “Composite Landscapes” is conceptual, at best. The whimsicality of titles like Valkenburgh’s “Experimental fish farm along the rue de Rivoli, Jardin des Tuileries” or Superstudio’s “Cube of Forest on the Golden Gate” speaks for itself. Those works at least have a wit and imaginativeness not always found elsewhere in the show.
The gravest shortcoming of “Composite Landscapes” is the most basic. One wants to know more about these often quite-arresting projects. It’s telling that the video display offers only three pieces of information: the firm, the name of the site, and the year. Is information seen as somehow vulgarizing these works? Otherwise how to explain something so basic as the placement of wall labels at such an uncomfortable distance from the images. Unless “Composite Landscapes” is meant exclusively for small children or those with pronounced stoops, the signage is too low for either comfort or easy comprehension.