Art can be both a window and a mirror. The experience of visiting several current Seattle shows depicting the outdoors has KUOW art critic Gary Faigin thinking about what art can tell us about our own attitudes, beyond those of the artist themselves.
I spent a long time living in New York within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum. There were particular parts of the collection that I visited faithfully, especially the many rooms of paintings in the European and American wings. What was curious was how certain works would stop me in my tracks after having being nearly ignored for years, while others that were once favorites would seem so much less brilliant, less important. I would come upon a modern work that had always mystified me and be drawn in for the first time; but there were those contemporary paintings that seemed to retreat from clarity to obscurity, or, more importantly, from relevance to irrelevance.
Encounters like mine at the Met are reminders that our experience of art is the net result of many factors, the nature of the art itself only being one of them. To take an obvious example, paintings of saints and virgins might inspire an entirely different response from the devout versus the skeptical, while observations of male nudity and female nudity will inevitably be colored by the viewer’s sexual orientation. A painting by David of central-casting Romans taking a blood oath struck the young idealists of pre-Revolutionary France as the height of sublimity and a model for their own behavior; it strikes us now as histrionic and melodramatic.
The emergence of landscape painting as an independent art form was very much a response to the deterioration of urban life brought on by the industrial revolution. Viewers in crowded, noisy, and polluted cities were only too eager to embrace depictions of pristine wilderness, free from the inroads of man and thus more spiritually and aesthetically pure.
Of the three shows I visited in Pioneer Square this month, two belong very much to this earlier tradition, one which I embraced myself during the first decade I was an exhibiting artist. Both Mitch Albala’s misty, romantic views of waterfalls at Lisa Harris, and Ian Boyden’s equally romantic, Asian-art inspired landscape abstractions at Davidson, look to nature as the ultimate source of transformative energy and power. Both artists favor dramatic compositions rendered in near-monochrome, with a minimalist sensibility favoring one dominant element to the exclusion of nearly everything else: the feathery plunge of water plumes in the oil paintings of Albala; the separation of earth and sky in the ink on paper compositions of Boyden.
Both shows represented the work of artists with distinctive sensibilities and an impressive command of their chosen form, but both shows made me feel a bit left out, watching a party to which I wasn’t invited. Perhaps I’m succumbing to the relentless drumbeat of bad news about the environment, or a weakness for gallows humor, but the landscape show I most connected with were the downbeat photographs of Adam Satushek in two separate locations nearby.
Satushek, a young artist whose large-format panoramas are captured on film rather than a memory chip, has an exceptionally adept eye for those incongruous juxtapositions of the natural and built realms that puncture rather than celebrate our romantic illusions. His pictures are also LOL funny, which provides just the right counterpoint to his rather grim message.
Take his deadpan street scene Frond. A dried up, parchment-brown palm frond stretches out on a sidewalk, its far end attached for some reason to the nozzle of a yellow fire hydrant (all scenes are presented as found). The plant shape resembles water pouring onto the cement, its outstretched leaves like waves washing up on the base of an LA Times newspaper rack. I’m reminded of the crime scene photographs of Weegee, but an updated, West Coast version, with a palm frond as the dead body, LA as New York, and color replacing black and white. The real victim of the crime, of course, is our image of the West as the golden land of stately palms and endless promise, its uprooted limbs laid out to die on a gritty Los Angeles sidewalk.
As an ironist, Satushek seeks out those vignettes that most reveal the oddity of our one-sided relationship with the natural world, something we experience but do not actually notice every time we step out the door. One of his favorite techniques for highlighting the peculiar is symmetry, finding a piece of life centered like a pinned Lepidoptera in a manmade, accidental frame.
"Appendage," for example, is a close-up of two mirror image bushes, each circled by an identical (and inexplicable) light halo of dirt. The punch line here is a large stick leaning against one of the bushes at a rakish angle. Since neither bush is visibly connected to the ground, the effect is to make the prop appear to be the stem, which makes it seem like the bush is falling over. This struck me as both funny and ridiculous, but it’s also a satisfying image on a strictly formal level, the rightness of the way the picture parts fit together.
"Pole" features what is a sort of tree made up of leafless branches, but like "Appendage," this tree has no visible connection to the ground; instead it both starts and ends partway up a telephone pole, which is of course a former tree itself. The living organism in "Poleis" is symmetrical both top to bottom and side to side, which makes it doubly weird; weird as well is the ghostly grey bush in "Bush," surviving somehow in the gap at the corner where two sides meet of an identically grey wooden fence. It’s as though we’ve attempted to produce a race of plants that conforms to strict manufacturing standards, but it’s not quite working – these are like factory rejects.
I’m equally amused by the droll "Lap," where a couple shares a crane operator’s seat on the top of a dump truck cab, he at the controls of a steel jaw which is in the process of shredding and disposing a tortured-looking tree trunk; she perched passively on his lap. Talk about anti-romantic; this young couple is the evil twin of strollers on the beach or flower-pickers in the meadow; the token of their affection is about to disappear into a literal black hole, the bed of the truck. Is this a sort of 21st Century foreplay?
Satushek even manages to take a poke at his counterparts in landscape art, those illusion-cherishing painters (see above). "Weed" immortalizes a pathetic little bush growing directly out of the edge where a cement-block wall meets a barren gravel walk, but the joke is that the whitewashed wall features a crude painted version of earth and greenery. The titular plant is the exact scale of its background painting, the image come to life but for what? Pygmalion sculpted a woman so beautiful that he brought it to life with his love, but in the world of "Weed" both the image and its embodiment can only break our hearts. At least, freed from defunct pastoral fantasies, we can laugh through our tears.