Saturday, March 30, 2013

Dow Jones, 1980-2009

I am not sure how many artists are currently working in the micro genre of landscape photography digitally altered to incorporate charts of financial data, but two are represented in the Somerset House exhibition 'Landmark: the Fields of Photography'.   Michael Najjar has created mountain scenes based on the NASDAQ, Dow Jones and Nikkei indices, inviting us to see their dramatic peaks and valleys as unnatural and unstable.   In the video clip above he points out a geographical feature corresponding to 9/11 and the precipitous slope that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  Mathieu Bernard-Reymond takes a slightly different approach in his Monuments series, converting these data series into imaginary land art sculptures.  "I use financial charts and statistics as basic shapes to produce photographic representations of global economic and ecological concerns. ... My purpose is to underline their fundamental link to landscape and thus, to human and natural history."

William Playfair, The Universal Commercial History, 1805

Of course line charts have been read like landscapes since their invention by William Playfair and presumably make use of our atavistic ability to judge relative scale when looking at distant hills.  Mountains are also useful metaphors - see for example the Information is Beautiful chart about media scare stories: 'Mountains out of Molehills'.  Some of the Mathieu Bernard-Reymond's charts remind me of the skylines and tally marks Hamish Fulton uses to record his walks.  There may well be artists inspired by Richard Long's conceptual walks who have made zig-zag journeys across a landscape, tracing the exact shape of a financial chart they have superimposed onto a map.  A more challenging project would be to physically climb and descend according to the dictates of an economic series, following the data's upward trends and downward dips (or double dips).  But the ultimate challenge would be to set up a business or run a stock market in order to replicate the mountain profile of the Rockies or the Alps.  Somewhere in the world there is probably a financial trader and accidental landscape artist whose transactions have followed such a path already.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Landscape with Banks and Trees

Federico Barocci, The Annunciation, 1582-4

Critics have been queuing up to praise the National Gallery's current exhibition, 'Barocci: Brilliance and Grace'.  Laura Cumming highlighted his mastery of colour, 'especially gold, grey and rose, getting the chromatic key right every time,' and the way he prepared his paintings: 'no artist before him – and maybe only Degas since – made quite so many different kinds of preliminary drawing.'  Adrian Hamilton described his 'technical brilliance and graphic genius' and observed of The Visitation (1583-6) that 'nothing I think in art can compare with the tenderness of the look between the two women as they greet each other'.  Waldemar Januszczak, behind his Sunday Times paywall, has apparently called the show 'inspired' and Brian Sewell found it a 'beautiful, thrilling and intelligent exhibition, its exegeses so self-evident that the turbid and turgid, over-explanatory and occasionally foolish catalogue is virtually superfluous'.  I have not looked into this unfortunate catalogue, but I did have a look round the exhibition, and what none of these critics mention is that it includes a row of three quite beautiful nature studies, which are described by the curators as having an 'immediacy unprecedented in earlier Italian art'.

 Federico Barocci, Landscape with Banks and Trees, a drawing
© Trustees of the British Museum

When Barocci died, 170 sketches from nature were among the works listed in his studio.  Interestingly, of those that survive, none seems to have a direct connection with his finished paintings.  The landscapes you see in the backgrounds of Barocci's religious scenes tend to be views of Urbino's ducal palace, as in The Annunciation reproduced above.  Incidentally, there is a remarkable preparatory chalk sketch for this painting in the show in which the two figures, drawn in smudgy sfumato, meet in front of what appears to be a looming cliff - a blank space where the landscape will go.  In contrast to such sketches, Barocci's nature studies were probably 'spontaneous responses to nature', executed in a style 'evocative of Oriental brush painting.'  The drawing above belongs to the British Museum, to whom it was bequeathed by Richard Payne Knight.  Another, from the Frits Lugt collection, shows a pair of trees delicately drawn in black chalk and brown wash.  It can be purchased in the form of a silk scarf from The National Gallery shop.

 Federico Barocci Study of Trees souvenir scarf
"capturing his original work in all its delicate beauty"

Friday, March 22, 2013


Robert Macfarlane on The Broomway, photographed by David Quentin

If you've read The Old Ways you'll know that Robert Macfarlane walked the 'deadliest path in Britain' accompanied by his friend David Quentin, a tax lawyer with a sideline in photography.  The images Quentin took that day are now on display at a London gallery and appear in a new standalone e-book of the 'Silt' chapter.  Music too has been composed for the exhibition: 'Silt' b/w 'The Grey Sink' by The Pale Horse - submerged field recordings and inaudible words, half lost in a mist of slow chords and drones.  At the launch event this week, David Quentin gave a self-deprecating account of the photographs, admitting that the film had run out half way through the walk and that the pictures were really the story of Macfarlane's trainers, visible in the first photographs but gone by the time he took the 'Gandalf shot' that was used for the book's back cover.  We are told in The Old Ways that Quentin 'likes wearing britches, likes walking barefoot, and hopes daily for the fall of capitalism.'  Stepping off the page on Wednesday evening in a beautifully cut old-fashioned suit, holding a battered vintage camera that looked as if it had survived several long walks in the Hindu Kush, he seemed splendidly anachronistic.  For there we all were, twenty-first century consumers trying to connect with an experience that had been reproduced and reworked across media and that will be further propagated online. The music so far is only available as a digital download.  The 'book' has a vintage pre-War Penguin cover, but no physical form.  The photographs show a ghostly figure walking through a no man's land that is gradually dematerialising in the mist.

'Out and on we walked, barefoot over and into the mirror-world.  I glanced back at the coast.  The air was grainy and flickering, like an old newsreel.  The sea wall had hazed out to a thin black strip.  Structures of unknown purpose - a white-beamed gantry, a low-slung barracks - showed on the shoreline.  Every few hundred yards, I dropped a white cockle shell.  The light had modified again, from nacreous to granular to dense.  Sound travelled oddly.  The muted pop-popping of gunfire was smudgy, but the call of a cuckoo from somewhere on the treeless shore rang sharply to us.  A pale sun glared through the mist, its white eye multiplying in pools and ripples.'

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Vision of Ezekiel

Perhaps there are still lovely, overlooked landscapes to be found, even if they are only hidden away in paintings.  Ingrid D. Rowland describes one in a recent article on 'The Gentle Genius', Raphael, for The New York Review of Books. Walking through the Pitti Palace in Florence you can be overwhelmed by paintings large and small, almost shouting for attention.  'Amid all this beautiful clamour any viewer can probably be forgiven for missing out on what The Vision of Ezekiel has to offer beneath its strange image of God descending in a cloud of apocalyptic monsters: an infinitesimal landscape with a tiny Ezekiel in the foreground, no larger than a silverfish, transfixed by a burst of heavenly light. But what a landscape! Its lazy river recedes back into endless depths between steep wooded hills. In the space of perhaps two inches by eight, the painting takes us on a dizzying flight straight up the Tiber valley to the green heart of Umbria, to the road that still leads from bustling cities like Florence and Perugia to Rome. It is a landscape as softened by the slow action of wind and water as Leonardo’s famous drawing of the upper Arno valley is stark and spiky, and it is a vision no less evocative of nature’s omnipresence, of perspectival depth and the artist’s commanding eye—but all contained within the lower margin of a painting that is largely taken up with a bizarre, and entirely unnatural, celestial vision.'

Raphael and Giulio Romano, The Vision of Ezekiel, 1516–1517

Of course Rowland is not the first admirer of this landscape and it is actually mentioned in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550).  'He also painted a little picture with small figures, which is likewise at Bologna, in the house of Count Vincenzio Ercolano, containing a Christ after the manner of Jove in Heaven, surrounded by the four Evangelists as Ezekiel describes them, one in the form of a man, another as a lion, the third an eagle, and the fourth an ox, with a little landscape below to represent the earth: which work, in its small proportions, is no less rare and beautiful than his others in their greatness.'  In an exhibition at the Prado last year, the painting was hung next to a tapestry of the same subject, woven in Flanders and destined for the canopy bed of Pope Leo X.  However, the tapestry omits the landscape and so do the painting's preparatory drawings.  According to Rowland, 'the landscape seems to have been painted almost as a whimsy, but if so, it is the whimsy of a master. In its perfection this lovingly painted portrait of a place flies in the face of conventional art-historical wisdom, which says that the old masters who managed large workshops entrusted this kind of background detail to assistants and concentrated their own efforts on the faces and hands of the major figures'.  And yet, she concludes, 'when it comes down to it, why should a master painter be interested only in foregrounds, or figures?'

Friday, March 15, 2013

Wafting winds of dusky night

“There’s nothing more boring on this earth than to have to read the description of an Italian journey, except maybe to have to write one — and the writer can only make it halfway bearable by speaking as little as possible of Italy itself.” - Heinrich Heine, 'The Baths of Lucca', 1829

Thus we are warned not to expect 'travel pictures' in Heine's Travel Pictures. When the landscape around Lucca is described, it is by his comic character, the Marquis Gumpelino: "How do you like this natural landscape?  What a marvelous creation!  Just look at the trees, the mountains, the sky, the river down there - doesn't it all look just like a painting?  Have you ever seen the like of it on stage?  The very sight of it makes you a poet, so to speak."  Heine can't disguise his contempt for such contrived sentiments and is accused in return by the Marquis of being "a torn man, a torn soul, a Byron."  Poor Byron, Heine thinks, to be incapable of such transports of emotion before a misty valley.  'Or was Percy Shelley right when he wrote that you'd espied nature in her maidenly nakedness, and so, like Actaeon, were ripped apart by her dogs.  Enough of this: we're getting to a better subject, namely Signora Leticia's and Francesca's apartments...'  And there follows a description of an erotic encounter with the second of these ladies that Byron would certainly have appreciated.

Heine monument on The Brocken

Heine's impatience with Romantic clichĂ© is equally evident in the best known of his Travel Pictures, 'The Harz Journey'.  This walking tour, taken in 1824 during his first year of legal studies at Göttingen University, culminates in a night spent at a crowded inn at the summit of the Brocken.  All of the guests seem to be after a glimpse of the Sublime, assembling in a watchtower to witness the sunset.  Afterwards they return for a supper which gets increasingly rowdy as 'bottles emptied themselves out and heads filled up', whilst the wind outside on the mountain seems to be singing along.  Heine watches two young men about to have a quintessential Romantic moment by flinging open a window and gazing out at the night.  But in their tired and emotional state they open the door of a large cupboard instead.  '"Oh ye wafting winds of dusky night!" cried the first, "How refreshing is your breath upon my cheeks!"'  And after some more fine phrases, the second addresses a pair of yellow trousers, mistaking them for the moon: "Lovely art thou, daughter of the heavens..."

Friday, March 08, 2013

A slightly malfunctioning, holographic forest

 Kelly Richardson, Leviathan, 2011
Image courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato
Originally commissioned by Artpace San Antonio
Photo credit: Colin Davison

Entering the Towner Gallery's exhibition, Kelly Richardson: Legion, you encounter this ominous landscape of dark trees and glowing water.  There are no natural sounds, only an eerie hum as if the whole place has been irradiated. The sickly yellow light ripples round the base of the trees, apparently emanating from somewhere underwater.  Mondrian used a similar composition for his Woods near Oele (1908), but the yellow light between the trees in his painting comes from the sun and symbolises in Theosophy ideas of enlightenment.  The meaning of Leviathan is obscure - it seems quite appropriate that the artist filmed it in Texas at Caddo Lake, near the town of Uncertain.  Her unsettling works do not tend to reference particular places, even when they are easily identifiable (the Lake District, for example, in Exiles of the Shattered Star (2006), which is seemingly being rained on by asteroids like the ones we recently saw streaking across the skies of Siberia). Leaving Leviathan, you walk into a forest of hanging video screens showing footage of sunlit woodlands.  It looks at first like a sylvan idyll, but the soundscape feels increasingly at odds with the images. Richardson has called this work The Great Destroyer, a reference to humanity.  The incongruous sounds are made by a lyrebird, imitating the noise of a chain saw, a car alarm and gunshots.

The third piece in the exhibition, Twilight Avenger (2008), has been described in an article by David Jager, 'Kelly Richardson: The Radiant Real.  'A magnificent stag appears, preens and begins to graze in a forest at dusk. The stag, however, is phosphorescent green and wrapped in a writhing emerald vapour. The forest, a painterly composite of several different natural locations, has been digitally enhanced to a luxurious degree, and the scene is punctuated by a soundtrack replete with crickets’ chirps and animal rustlings. What is most confounding about this eye-popping paean to pastoral kitsch is how it manages to be remotely believable at all'.  A vision of a stag in a woodland sounds like it should hark back to folklore and legend, but this creature looks like it could have wandered in from a Harry Potter film.  It is the same unnatural colour as the green screens used in chroma key compositing, but when it moves out of shot you realise that the still, empty forest it inhabits is no more real than the stag.

The Erudition is the final work in the exhibition, a vision of the future in which the ghosts of trees flicker on and off in a barren landscape.  In a recent interview, the artist explains how she 'wanted to create a large, slightly malfunctioning, holographic forest ... The landscapes were shot in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Southern Alberta during a residency with the Southern Alberta Art Gallery and then highly manipulated to control the colour, light, mood and importantly to the idea, to remove all signs of humanity. Months were then dedicated to learning two new software programs to create the holopads and holographic trees which appeared to be blowing in a fictional wind. All of the individual components which make up the images were then composited together to produce the final works. From start to finish The Erudition took about a year and a half to see to completion.'  One reviewer has described the result as resembling a forgotten site for some proposed extraterrestrial colonisation.  'Richardson produces a future-world that was, now not so much remembered as stored in the dull chill of a multi-terabyte hard-drive: gone, forgotten, but forever clickable.'

Kelly Richardson, The Erudition, 2010
Image courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato
Photo credit: Colin Davison

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Red Pool, Scaur River

It is now ten years since Cornelia Parker caused some controversy with The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached), in which she wrapped Rodin's sculpture with a mile of string.  I recall at the time not being particularly impressed with this, but not feeling particularly outraged either.  Cornelia Parker is, after all, one of our leading artists and whilst The Distance may not have been up there with Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View or Embryo Firearms, it was well done and had a (relatively) clear point to it.  As a temporary installation carefully stage managed by the Tate it was hardly an act of vandalism.  Nevertheless, it prompted James Fenton to write angrily in The Guardian that 'it should be a principle of conservation that nothing unnecessary is done to an original work of art in a public collection, and I don't care what the "conservators" say about the care they took in executing this banal intervention. They wouldn't have dared do this to Brancusi. They shouldn't have done this to Rodin.'

The reason I mention all this is because there are potential implications for land art.  Even if the intervention is temporary, and executed with good aesthetic judgement by a renowned artist, is it really acceptable to alter a landscape that people will have come to enjoy in its natural state?  The issue is discussed in Allen Carlson's stimulating book, Aesthetics and the Natural Environment (2000).  He argues that a temporary artwork, like a Christo piece, can still be an 'aesthetic affront to nature' even if it doesn't have the permanent impact of a Michael Heizer earthwork.  He also questions the view advanced by Robert Smithson that land artists should 'become conscious of themselves as natural agents', i.e. that their art would be equivalent to natural processes, because if these were truly equivalent the artwork would not really be art.  Auguste Rodin and Cornelia Parker were both making art, but their purpose and means were very different and The Distance could not exist independently of The Kiss.

Although The Distance had no simple didactic purpose, Parker has said that it was 'about emotional relationships and love and the impossibility of it.'  This suggests another defence of land art: that aesthetic judgements need to consider the work's message or symbolism.  In particular, there is the issue of whether it can raise awareness of our impact on the environment, something Glenn Parsons' recent book Aesthetics & Nature calls into question, with reference to Andy Goldsworthy's Red Pool, Scaur River, Dumfreisshire (1994-5).  Parsons suggests that 'the fact that people in our time are so ignorant and apathetic about nature that it takes a glowing red pool of water to interest them in it does nothing to mitigate the effrontery of such frumpery.'  Cornelia Parker's views on love and Andy Goldsworthy's concerns about pollution could, it might be argued, have been expressed in ways that did not alter the appearance of an existing sculpture or a Scottish landscape.

Many environmental artworks have sought to 'improve' degraded industrial landscapes.  Such cases could be seen as more akin to restoration (although the distinction between these places and more 'natural' sites isn't necessarily obvious).  Another line of thought holds that land art can bring out or make more evident the underlying qualities of a landscape.  Allen Carlson cites the works of Michael Singer, which have 'been characterised as "gateways," "reflectors," "accents," and "magnifiers " of the site.'  Carlson seems less critical of this approach, which can be viewed as a form of framing rather than a direct 'affront to nature'.  But Parsons asks us to think about hosting a dinner party and returning from the kitchen to find our guest has attempted a temporary 'improvement' by rearranging our furniture, 'gussying up' our living room.  'It is not only the wholesale obliteration of aesthetic qualities that can constitute an aesthetic affront; the milder act of gussying up can be an aesthetic affront as well.'

In light of this, do we really want Andy Goldsworthy going around rearranging the leaves in our woodlands?  Of course it is hard not to love some of Goldsworthy's temporary natural sculptures, but they can still be seen as 'prettifying nature'.  Nature however was not designed as an artwork and it remains unclear who it is that he could be affronting here (leaving aside questions of who actually owns the woods and the degree to which they can be described as being in a natural).  James Fenton's article suggests that Cornelia Parker's work is an affront to Rodin, although, like a woodland, Rodin is not capable of expressing a view.  Carlson and Parsons argue that you can feel affronted on behalf of nature even though nature itself is mute.  It is possible to imagine someone coming upon a mound of colour-sorted leaves and regretting the way they distract from the unadorned beauty (and ugliness) of the site, like a tourist arriving at the Tate only to find that The Kiss has been wrapped in string.

John Schiff, his twine by Marcel Duchamp, 
at First Papers of Surrealism (view south), 1942
 Image: from Toutfait

In their discussion of art in nature both Allen Carlson and Glenn Parson use a provocative analogy for the alteration of a landscape: Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q.  They acknowledge that the comparison with land art is not direct; Duchamp, after all, only adapted a copy of the Mona Lisa.  Clearly if Cornelia Parker had wrapped a plaster cast of The Kiss it would have been less controversial.  Her use of string was actually inspired by Duchamp, who installed a chaotic web of twine around the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New YorkAccounts suggest that some visitors felt this string detracted from the paintings whilst others thought it helped them see the other artists' work in a new way.  Opinion would no doubt be just as divided if his twine was installed out in the landscape instead of in a gallery.  The formal simplicity, beautiful colours and natural materials that you find in Andy Goldsworthy are absent.  Partially obscuring some well known beauty spot (the scenic equivalent of The Kiss), his twine would frustrate some and interest others, before being taken down and remembered only through its documentation - a temporary affront, a memorable talking point, or a complex tangle of aesthetic questions. 

Saturday, March 02, 2013

'Message to Basho', Kiyosumi Garden

Thomas Joshua Cooper, Ritual Object 
(Message to Donald Judd and Richard Serra), Derbyshire, 1975
©Thomas Joshua Cooper, Courtesy Haunch of Venison 

This is one of eighteen Thomas Joshua Cooper photographs currently on show at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London.  The pervading darkness and silvery highlights on every blade of grass are typical of his work, but the subject here is unusual.  Normally the foregrounds of his more intense close-up landscapes feature rocks, trees or dense undergrowth.  Here we have an enigmatic (found?) object, illuminated in such a way that the light seems to emanate from within.  Nevertheless it fits with what Thomas A. Clark said about the third step in looking at a Thomas Joshua Cooper image, as mentioned here before. 'First we admire its scale and intensity, the 'deep blacks and velvety whites' of its surface.  Secondly we penetrate to the place itself - not some famous site, just an assemblage of trees, foliage, water.   Finally the viewer starts to feel the spirit of the place, which ‘will always be alien, unhuman, beyond our preconceptions.’'

Thomas Joshua Cooper, A Premonitional Work 
(Message to Caspar David Friedrich and Francis Frith), 
Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales, 1992
©Thomas Joshua Cooper, Courtesy Haunch of Venison

Whatever the Ritual Object is, the title of the photograph refers us to the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and Richard SerraThis whole exhibition is based on Cooper's 'ongoing conversation' with predecessors and contemporaries: a Message to Paul Strand and Agnes Martin found in New Mexico, a Message to Minor White in Derbyshire, a Message to E.S. Curtis in The Trossacks.  The way these cultural reference points emerge from the interface between art and landscape reminded me of an artist Cooper has often shared gallery space with in Scotland, Ian Hamilton Finlay.  It also made me think of the way artists and writers stimulate Alec Finlay's work, as in his Scottish reworking of Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. There is a small photograph of light filtering through leaves in the Thomas Joshua Cooper exhibition: 'Message to Basho', Kiyosumi Garden.  This late nineteenth century garden in Tokyo contains a monument with Basho's famous frog poem carved into it, but Cooper makes a more subtle connection with the poet in his haiku-sized image of an ordinary moment stilled, so that it seems at the same time transient and timeless.

Thomas Joshua Cooper, A Premonitional Work, The River Findhorn
(Message to Timothy H. O'Sullivan), 
Morayshire, Scotland, 1992
©Thomas Joshua Cooper, Courtesy Haunch of Venison