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Human Nature 

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at Feigen, through August 6

Most Western artists have dealt with their subjects primarily by depicting them directly. Impressed by a spectacular landscape, the painter rendered its details to the best of his ability. The Christian artist who wanted to make the truth of the risen Christ a reality would paint--well, the risen Christ.

In our century of course the idea of direct depiction has been challenged. For one thing, the invention of photography was thought to have made realist painting unnecessary. Still, a bit more than half of the 19 artists included in "Changing Views," a show at Feigen dealing with recent landscape and nature art, do provide views of natural scenes. The other artists represent the two principal alternative routes landscape art has taken. One group, their roots in postimpressionism, tend toward abstraction, seeking patterns that simulate nature's forms. The other, almost diametrically opposite approach seeks to tie the artwork more directly to physical nature, often by incorporating natural materials.

What counts for the "abstractionists" is not the appearances of nature but the inner principles on which it's organized. Judy Ledgerwood's Pastoral has the texture of natural forms but doesn't depict anything specific. Its mottled mix of colors--the dominant dark green interrupted by deep reds and yellows, each color varying in shade almost continuously--made me think of moss and lichen. At the upper right is a "clearing" of lighter green, suffused with radiant light, but too high in the picture to be an actual clearing in an actual forest.

Julia Fish's Drift is less lush and consequently not as immediately rewarding, but it repays repeated looks. Strange tan blobs are set against a gray blue background--maybe clouds in the sky, fish in the water, plants on the ground--but the gray background seems to shine through each blob at times, while the tan peers through the background. The color fields are not separate autonomous areas but incorporate one another, a vision of interdependency that mirrors nature's ecology.

Perhaps the most beautiful work in the exhibit is Robert Bordo's The Old Way. A pale, iridescent blue field is interrupted by irregular bluish tan shapes; at times the difference between the shapes and the background is so slight as to lie at the limit of perceptibility. This painting evokes fogs and mists, which absorb all forms into their homogeneous light, as well as the mental state of near transcendence, in which all variety is subsumed by an overpowering ecstasy.

In one sense these three artists are echoing nature's patterns, but each work can also be seen as a personal mind's-eye vision--as nature interiorized, transformed. Two other artists in "Changing Views" also personalize nature, though the results are more amusing and conceptual.

The top half of Jeanne Dunning's photograph Untitled Landscape is white; the bottom is an extreme close-up of a hairy human limb. The limb is like the earth, a kind of hill on which the hairs stand in for tall grasses; by finding a "landscape" in a body, the artist sees nature in terms of the human. Michael Banicki, the exhibit's strangest artist, is represented by three of his characteristic grid paintings of tiny colored squares. In each he compares and rates, according to his own personal criteria, lakes and minerals. The vertical and horizontal axes of Wisconsin Lakes Rating are labeled with the names of various lakes; at the bottom a color scale displays several colors, with white denoting the most positive rating and black the most negative. Looking through the columns, we see that Banicki has determined that Lake Mendota gets a white box against South Wind Lake, but that it receives a black one when compared with Yellow Lake.

Banicki's paintings do have an interesting look: the small grids filled with multicolored boxes are like incredibly complex instrument panels or old IBM punch cards. But the idea of reducing natural things to linear ratings seems at first totally absurd, even obnoxious. Yet Banicki is so reductive it seems he must be conscious of the limitations of his "system." And there's something endearingly nutty about his whole project, which combines extensive research, including traveling, with highly arbitrary criteria for rating--a lake is rated higher, for instance, if he happens to catch a fish in it.

In one way, Banicki's vision is diametrically opposed to the aesthetic abstractions of Ledgerwood, Fish, and Bordo. To their subjective, "analog" images of a nature that cannot be reduced to words, measurements, or precise photographic images, he offers the ultimate in reductionism--we do not see the lakes themselves, or their essences, we see only dots in a few colors rating them. Yet Banicki shares with Ledgerwood, Fish, and Bordo an impulse to locate nature inside the mind: all of them ignore nature's palpable physical side, offering instead the artist's subjective perception.

Since the 1960s another group of artists have rejected all such personalized views of nature, seeking to be truer to nature's essence by somehow including it directly in their works. Hamish Fulton has been taking "walks"--long hikes in various parts of the world--since 1969. Then he documents them with pictures and text, or with simple drawings and text, or with text alone. Since 1973, when he imposed on himself the dictum "no walk, no work," all his art has stemmed from his walks. At the center of Touching Boulders by Hand is a large black-and-white photo of a boulder in a mountain landscape; a text below identifies the location and duration of the walk: "Fourteen days walking fourteen nights camping." A book describing a number of Fulton's works is available in the gallery for perusal; it reveals the great variety of walks he's taken and the varied ways he's documented them. But invariably the documentation is sparse, intentionally incomplete--only one photograph, for instance, or a mere list of words. It's as if the real "art" lies in the walks themselves, which can never be fully re-created; Fulton's austere presentation directs the viewer's attention away from the object on the wall and toward imagining hikes in the wild.

Next to Fulton's book is a similar one about Richard Long, another British "walk" artist. Long documents his walks in printed books and also makes works that incorporate natural materials. His Whitechapel Spiral is a panel on which muddy hand- and footprints have been arranged in squarish double spirals; the materials are described as "River Avon mud on board." This work did not give me a conventional "aesthetic experience"--there are no Rembrandt rhythms or Titian colors. The prints are crudely made, thicker in some parts than in others, with streaks and splotches of mud throughout; the rectilinear arrangement is not especially pleasing. But any traditional "beauty" would direct the viewer's attention away from the messy physicality of the actual mud and toward the transcendent powers of the human imagination. And that would weaken Long's point: that the rawest and most unmediated of nature's materials is worthy of the viewer's contemplation. Much as Native Americans buried seashells with their own sculptures in tombs, acknowledging animals as their fellow artists, Long directs our attention away from the artist and toward nature itself.

Perhaps the most polemical work here, in the best sense of the word, is Dan Peterman's Recycled Plastic Tires. Three black tires with deep treads carefully carved in them are made, we're informed, of "reprocessed plastic milk jugs and pop bottles." A worthy enterprise, no doubt, the artist leading the way to a better world--but wait! These tires aren't rolling anywhere: each is a 12-sided polygon. Peterman says his intent is "to acknowledge a sort of flawed reasoning" behind recycling. "Recycling promotes plastics use," which promotes oil use, which in his view accomplishes nothing. These useless mutant tires are meant to parody the "naive optimism" behind the recycling of plastics, which are strange materials chemically unlike any existing in nature and, in the view of some eco-extremists, should never have been made in the first place. Plastic waste cannot produce anything useful, merely more waste.

Of the works in "Changing Views" that do depict nature directly, about half are benign, pleasant views of trees and streams. The other half--about a quarter of the works in the show--are surprisingly troubled, or at least surprisingly removed from the reality they purport to identify. Even a work by the popular Wolf Kahn, the pastel Deep Magenta Sunset (a title that could be applied to most of his pictures), is odd: it seems to refer less to actual landscapes and sunsets than to painterly traditions--Monet, Matisse, Nolde. Yvonne Jacquette's Madison Paper Company II, based on sketches and photos made from a chartered airplane, offers an overhead perspective like that of a survey map. Dan Graham's two color photographs mounted together--Courtyard of Development, NJ and Row of Houses, NJ--present barren row houses, their forms repetitive and soulless, their windows staring out at the viewer like blank eyes unattached to any brain.

Still more alienated than these is Gregory Crewdson's photograph Untitled (Natural Wonder). A background of suburban homes and trees is overshadowed by a foreground of three birds--which seem almost house-sized because they're so close to the lens. "Nature," in the form of the birds, here dominates the houses, but the camera-induced domination is artificial, a trick. In fact the whole scene is a trick: Crewdson meticulously constructed a world only several feet wide, handcrafting the houses and some of the trees and purchasing stuffed birds, which look even more dead than the birds Audubon so famously killed in order to paint them. Crewdson has made a whole series of such photos (more can be seen in the gallery office), and they all combine manipulations of perspective recalling trompe l'oeil painting with the look of the museum diorama. Nature, Crewdson seems to be saying, no longer exists; our suburban world of picture windows and manicured lawns has reduced it to a kind of peep show. The apparent difference between foreground nature and suburban background lessens when one sees the whole photo as a fabrication; the small disparity that remains is not a real conflict but an empty cry against nature dying out in a fast-homogenizing world.

In each of the show's three rooms is a video monitor mounted near the ceiling, each running the same four-minute loop of various Chicago street scenes, mostly filmed from upper-story windows. The scenes are fragmentary, edited together in a rather staccato, not particularly logical manner. This work, called Window Shot, was made by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle and a group called Street-Level Video, whose work Manglano-Ovalle describes as focusing on gang-related issues and crossing boundaries between rival groups. The tape shows various street confrontations; even the calmer scenes hint at a possible eruption.

This strong work intrudes on the viewer in subtle ways. Seen straight through on a single monitor, the video is interesting but not especially effective; seen in pieces while viewing the rest of the show, it inspires just the right degree of paranoia. For one thing the overhead placement of the monitors and the images seen from above suggest a surveillance camera. Everywhere one goes, gritty and threatening scenes of street life follow, and the rawness of those concrete-filled, natureless scenes also opposes the aesthetics of Ledgerwood, Fish, and Bordo.

It's a truism that artworks are open to a wide variety of viewer interpretations. A group show on a specific subject encourages the viewer to make it cohere, organizing it according to his own preconceptions, turning it into a kind of story. For me the majority of the works in this show--excluding the half-dozen benign nature views, which I found the least interesting--suggested a particularly bleak picture of the state of nature today. Artists like Graham, Crewdson, and Manglano-Ovalle reveal how totally we've removed ourselves from the natural world; realizing this, Ledgerwood, Fish, and Bordo don't try to portray our ruined streets or artificial suburbs but seek retreat in a nature of the mind, which can be found in the smallest garden. The polemical Peterman, invoking the idea of artist as shaman, would like to cleanse the natural world but realizes that's impossible; his works are not powerful icons of renewal but images of the absurd--tires that don't work. About the only hope seems to be to take one of Long's or Fulton's remote walks--but for that one needs oil-based transportation to a distant clime, or else to wait until the local temperatures and humidity drop out of the 90s.

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