After Destiny: The Contemporary American Landscape

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Jul 27, 2011 - Aug 31, 2011

After Destiny: The Contemporary American Landscape

Alberto Borea
LaToya Ruby Frazier

Greg Lindquist

Mary Mattingly

Cameron Martin
Ellen Phelan
Xaviera Simmons

After Destiny: The Contemporary American Landscape

In 1836, Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole championed America's pristine natural beauty in his 'Essay on American Scenery.' He declared that unlike the scenes of the old world, which were encumbered with extensive histories, America was 'not so much of the past as of the present and the future.' Cole dismissed the ruins and temples of our European past, viewing America as 'freedom's offspring—peace, security, and happiness…the spirit of the scene.' Yet, in the same essay, Cole expressed unease about America's future landscape:

              Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away—the ravages of
               the axe are daily increasing—the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and
               barbarianism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless…desecrated by what is
               called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature’s beauty without substituting that of Art.

Since the Hudson River School's views of the undiscovered and 
unconquered West encouraged by the Manifest Destiny doctrine, 
artists continue to use the American landscape as a leitmotif to describe how our built and untamed environments 
have been shaped by human progress, intervention and development. Although these contemporary artists may not explicitly address these events, the related issues in their work evoke larger concerns. These seven artists, myself included, work within a strategy of landscape to draw attention to particular 
social, political, cultural, aesthetic and environmental concerns.

In addition, our use of photography as either an end result or means to painterly ends reflects a greater cultural and technological paradigm. This way of seeing involves the photographic image as a mediator and facilitator of contemporary communication. In most recent years, photography was more concerned than painting with landscape. Besides the New Topographics movement and others, photography has served more of a documenting function of the 1970s Land Art and Earthworks movement.

Alberto Borea appropriates and reassembles real estate advertisement, calling attention to the 2008 recession and its relationship to the housing market. His works resemble the fragmentation of Gordon Matta-Clark's photographic collages of his dissected buildings in the 1970s. In current times, Borea's deconstructed rural upstate New York mansions are antithetically signifiers of unbalanced distributions of wealth and opulence in difficult economic times. Disassembled glossy slivers of these homes also evoke the disorder and decay of slums Borea has observed in his native South America.

LaToya Ruby Frazier's photographs of her hometown Braddock, Pennsylvania depict the impact and decline of the Industrial Revolution. If Manifest Destiny encouraged the Hudson River School's ideas of westward expansion and exploration, then the economic forces of globalization have propelled industry over seas in Braddock. Frazier's images depict what she describes as 'government abandonment and corporate exploitation has led to environmental degradation which has impacted Braddock's land and local inhabitants.' She adds that 'Any attempts of 'beautification' for the name sake of 'revitalization' is a superficial band-aid that can not heal decades of neglect and greed.'  

Depictions of blanched flora and 
Southwestern geological formations in Cameron Martin's paintings evoke our culture's disconnection from 
a once majestic, undeveloped frontier. Flickering and enigmatic, these arboreal and geological auras become meditations on our multiplex ties with the natural world. Through a seduction of beauty, Martin often engages environmental politics, such as in his 2004 exhibition titled 'Clear Skies,' referring to George W. Bush's initiative to lessen air pollution controls and favor big business. Martin's paintings also are a momento mori reflection on the paradoxically relative brief time we spend on earth and our cumulative human impact on it. Martin furthermore reflects on epochal time and the landscape, evoking a Robert Smithson-like sense of geological strata through his intricately layered, continuously unfolding paintings.

Like Martin, Ellen Phelan focuses on depictions of the stillness in nature. Turbid and paint-washed photographs of wilderness 
suggest a particular sense of nostalgia for and rehabilitation of the Hudson River School era of painting. Phelan, inspired by the grandeur of light in her surrounding locales in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, uses color to convey her sensations of these specific places. Phelan feels a particular connection with the landscape's history, beauty and it's unique character in an increasingly urbanized world.

The futuristic and phantasmagoric landscapes in Mary Mattingly's digitally altered photographs heighten our anxieties for ecological and sociocultural disaster.
 'I think everything will fall apart before we change our habits of oil consumption,' Mattingly commented about our environmental destiny. Among a constellation of approaches in photography, video, sculptural intervention and community engagement, she has imagined an immersive post-natural world in which we must adapt to our own ecological decline. In her photographs, the idea of nature as a binary opposite of human environment collapses, recalling Buckminster Fuller's explanation that nature includes 'everything that exists physically, since everything is subject to the laws of nature, including man's inventions.'

Xaviera Simmons's photographs meld landscape, history and memory as narrative. She employs landscape as performance and photography as theatre, playing various characters, documenting her presence as part of the environment. Although she maintains that the locations are ambiguous, Simmons's scenes also suggest the United States' South and its history, as well as a particular sense of nostalgia. Her comment 'My love of landscape is a result of viewing painterly images—'Americana imagery'' evokes the roots of American landscape through painting movements such as the Hudson River School.

I feel a special kinship through an American Hudson River School point of reference with these artists. I have felt in my own paintings—oftentimes representing crumbling factories, construction sites, Western desert expanses or enigmatic objects in nature—inspiration from and affinities with these artists' work. We seven artists demonstrate a plurality of media and approaches to interpreting the landscape of America and represent a diversity of gender and ethnicity. We reflect our concern for what has been forgotten, neglected or abused in our conception of physical and metaphysical topographies.  

- Greg Lindquist is a North Carolina-born artist and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He recently created a wall painting installation at LMCC's exhibition space on Governors Island in 'No One is an Island,' curated by Omar Lopez-Chahoud. Lindquist received the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and attended Art Omi International Residency in 2009. His work has been written about in various publications, including Art in America, ARTnews, New York Observer, Bomb Magazine, Sculpture and Frieze.

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