In the early 1990s at a College Art Association panel, the veteran painter Rackstraw Downes presented “Nature and Art Are Physical,” a paper reflecting on the landscape artist. The essay has become the title of a collection of his writings on art from 1967 to 2008 and is an appropriate statement for the aesthetic ideology of Downes’s own paintings. While his practice often circles around economically and socially charged landscapes, Downes has claimed that the places depicted therein are always selected for the material and formal concerns of the image rather than their political implications.
“Nature and Art Are Physical” is emblematic of Downes’s underlying predilections for materialism and abstraction. Rather than discuss the structural framing of an image, Downes situates his work within a comparison of the physical fact of paint to the material presence of nature. He foregrounds these concerns by quoting land artist Robert Smithson’s preference for “the weighty sensation” of rocks over nature’s “idealistic reduction” as an idea of non-site. Since the 1960s, Downes says, North American art has addressed the physicality of nature in two ways: as traditional landscape painting (and by extension through abstraction) and as three-dimensional sculptures that have a mimetic relationship to nature.
But in embracing the physicality of painting and its de facto quality of abstraction, Downes elides not only painting’s fundamental illusionism but also its accompanying sign power and capacity for metaphor. (In another essay, he rejects realism as a way to describe his paintings, favoring an empirical experience of seeing over a conceptual one.) A picture plane is always an interface of the physical and the virtual, what is visible and what is invisible. Even Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings have the organization of pictorial space; and in their allusiveness to the Long Island fields in which many were painted, they are closer to Turner’s “Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway” than, say, Malevich’s “Black Square.” Here and in other essays, Downes expresses ambivalence while productively raising questions such as: Should art express environmental concerns, either directly or indirectly? Or should it be concerned solely with its material presence and articulation?
Created in the landscape with only brush, oils, and canvas, Downes’s work embodies an anti-digital-technology stance, if these materials can be accepted now as almost an extension of the hand more than as an advanced technological tool. In the relation of the body to painting, which demands similar motions to activities such as dance, as well as the muscle memory of the painter’s hand and arm, the brush may be seen as more intimately connected to its user than most modern technologies. (Recently, the debate of the identity of the smartphone for the purposes of warrantless police searches raises similarly essential phenomenological questions.) It seems reasonable, if a little specious, to note that the more developed the technology, the more physical distance it has from its user. Downes has used this example: if you were to punch someone, you would feel it in your entire arm, shoulder and body. But if you were to shoot someone with a gun, you would merely have to flex a finger. This position for Downes is both a strength in its extreme, obdurate refusal to the use of current digital technologies and a limitation in its lack of accounting for these invisible processes within the illusionistic constructions of his landscapes.
Although his stance is virtually antithetical to my own, I ultimately admire his lifelong commitment to a position of technological independence, which is an interesting counterpoint to the popular embrace of technology and the way it modifies our behaviors. He makes an important point that artists’ use of modern technology creates an unwieldy dependence on corporate commercial structures, imposing an implicit control over products and their communication. We can never assume the technologies we use are ideologically neutral. For example, Adobe imaging products are costly, unstable and limiting, encouraging artists either to be beholden to academic positions for distributed software or to hack programs in defiance of their market-controlled licensing. (Oil paint thankfully doesn’t require upgrades, but what a bleak world if it did.) Wholesale dependency and absorption of technology into artistic practice begets blatant product, clearly evident in large-scale productions such as Matthew Day Jackson’s 2013 super-sized Koonsian efforts in Hauser & Wirth’s gallery multiplex. Here, the detached irony of Koons is substituted with an earnest remixing of Hudson River School tropes, along with other elements of cultural and personal mythology.
Landscape artists in the 2000s used digital technologies to grapple with nature and culture in visualizing both the visible and the invisible. For example, in the early- to mid-2000s, Benjamin Edwards created dense visualizations of Internet ether, architectural design programs, and gaming through his multilayered paintings that were designed by computer but executed by hand. Corrine Wasmuht’s paintings circa 2008 echo Edwards’s concerns with a lighter touch and scale, also translating her large canvases directly onto the wall. The internal logic of a computer screen, its infinitely opened windows, and the resultant discontinuous focus of such attention were richly articulated in these works. Ryan McGinness’s 2005 exhibition installationview translated the media landscape of logos and advertising into an immersive installation, decentering full sensorial focus; and Cameron Martin’s elegiac atonal paintings of branches and boulders, representing parts of nature for the whole, translated photographs into paintings through digital imaging, architectural stencils and house-paint sprayers. All of these painters embraced photography, digital imaging such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and tracing tools such as digital projectors or stenciling. In embracing the tools of the computer, they acknowledge through their process our conflicted technological landscape.
Now, in the second decade of this millennium, the performative and participatory event has melded with landscape art. By inclusion of cellular airwaves, Internet networks, and ozone, these mediums all coexist, and by means of our discontinuous focus they are intermixed, interrelated, and interlinked. This third path of a non-hierarchical participation and collaboration with nature and landscape encompasses and allows for a polyvocality that many young artists are embracing through a nexus of positions and strategies.
A group of artists who come to mind, many of whom are peers and colleagues, are working with hybrid forms of painting, photography, and/or sculpture that are intertwined with specific actions and activities. Unifying these diverse studio practices is a focus on landscape; what may appear to be a scattered output is intentional, thematic, and focused in its diversity. Contrary to Baudelaire’s 19th-century decree, painting and photography can work cooperatively. Still, while some would superficially fall under Downes’s link to the landscape tradition of painting, it is clearly grounded in a generation of artists born in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Perhaps most similar to Downes’s empirical process of knowing are Josephine Halvorson’s plein-air selections from the landscape. Yet, her canvases are imbued with a searching for feeling, intimacy, and empathy for objects and their accompanying human-perceived vital matter. Halvorson’s paintings are sensual and clumsy, immediate and bursting. To cite another example, Kevin Zucker’s recent paintings of stormy resorts riff on an impressionistic pixelation of rain. Computer-sketched and -stenciled but hand painted, they collaborate with technologies, bringing a materially vibrant and empathetic life to what appears to be an enlarged screen. Finally, responding to the technologies of illumination are Tom McGrath’s nightscapes that combine the modernist photogram technique with a painterly effusion of urban halogen light, while Damian Stamer’s flickering canvases depicting barns of the South evoke Gerhard Richter’s monochromes and address the murky collective archives of memory.
These criteria of participation also call to mind a number of artists who weave a network of participations with humans, non-humans, and technologies. They erode the unnecessary boundary between living and non-living entities. For example, Mary Mattingly’s social interventions—in which she drags processions of her bundled possessions over bridges, through rural fields to burial plots, and into urban streets—present the physical and moral weight of the supply chains, exploitative material origins, and ultimate obsolescence of personal property. In addition, her meticulous research into the origins of her own technological tools, such as digital cameras, computers, and photographic paper, further illuminate her position. Nancy Nowacek’s forthcoming project Citizen Bridge proposes to unite Governors Island and Red Hook over Buttermilk Channel for one day with a collaboratively built floating bridge. Nowacek’s proposition assembles a multitude of human bureaucratic relationships and nonhuman alliances within the landscape, mediated by the development of special technologies in order to create a temporary passage. In addition, these interconnections between humans, nature, and technologies are forefront in Bryan Zanisnik’s obsessive New Jersey Meadowlands-inspired junkyard theater and William Lamson’s struggle to create the illusion of hovering over the waterway among the currents of the Delaware River as a futile exercise of our thwarted interconnection with nature.
An interesting culmination of modes and media of these examples is Matthew Ritchie’s recent I.C.A. Boston installation, in which he created painting installations both in the museum and in public space, engaging and working in concert with a community outside of the art world. Ritchie raises a productive question: Must the physicality of nature be literally reenacted with material and actions, or can those actions be implied by a process of material’s translation to image, as with paint? Or, a combination of the two? The collaboration of painting, photography, and sculpture/actions is fertile ground for exploration. Perhaps the traditional term of “landscape” should be discarded while speaking about contemporary works. After all, none of the contemporary artist-peers I have discussed can be described simply as landscape artists.
Finally, what are the end social results of the performative action of social practice or the assembly of a particular set of pigments? Social practice’s actions open a utopian space of possibility, whereas a painting offers presence as an aesthetic tool as well as an autonomous yet linked and empathetic object. The muscle knowledge and the movements of the hand are empathic, activating the felt experience of paint. In depicting a landscape, a painting is both the physical site of material transformation and the signifier of the site depicted, both object and illusionistic space in a virtual network and material relations. While both mediums may engage a matrix of social relations, their ends greatly differ. Whereas social practice speculates a site proposition, painting elaborates on a site’s completion. Somewhere between the complexity of depiction/signification and the open-endedness of proposition is where we find ourselves in this moment with landscape art.
We recognize now more than ever that the experience of art is responsible for the specific place, culture, and conditions in which it was created. Art, like objects, like people, cannot be detached from its surroundings or contexts and still be fully experienced. It matters, for example, that I wrote the majority of this essay from campsites in the Florida Keys, in between reef dives and plein-air cooking on camp stoves with my brother, among a tamed experience of nature. I sent this essay to my co-editor from a computer tethered to my smartphone, over invisible networks, while riding in a rental car over the Seven Mile Bridge.