Human Nature | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Human Nature 

Susan Peterson at N.A.M.E. Gallery, through October 12

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Susan Peterson

at N.A.M.E. Gallery, through

October 12

By Erin Hogan

Twentieth-century city dwellers have stopped trying to answer a question that was a major preoccupation of 19th-century thinkers: How should humanity's relationship to the natural world be conceived? Ralph Waldo Emerson and his cohorts argued that man's intelligence is primary and that natural history proceeds from that, while the proponents of natural philosophy suggested the opposite--that nature was the foundation and source through which intelligence could be examined. But both ideas depend on an unbreakable connection between man and the natural world in which neither is subsumed or contained by the other.

Adherents to the idea of an inviolable, mutually sustaining connection can be found scattered throughout American literature and philosophy of the 19th century, but the paintings of the period tell a different story, a story of domination, confusion, even terror. In most of these American landscapes an awesome nature dwarfs minuscule figures and structures beneath stormy clouds or piercing sunlight; the paintings can hardly be said to picture a harmonious relationship. But man's connection to the natural environment was in many ways a philosophical tradition that couldn't quite withstand the crush of 20th-century urbanism and industrialism. Today our puzzled attempts to come to terms with nature seem relevant only on days when the lake looks particularly fearsome, or when clouds overtake the top of the Sears Tower, or when a white-knuckle midwestern thunderstorm sweeps in ahead of the local news, whose green scabs on the Storm Tracker change any sort of immediate experience to a visual, sanitized version of "the weather."

Susan Peterson, whose current exhibition can be seen at N.A.M.E., makes the enormous leap from Romantic visions of nature to television's treatment of meteorological events comprehensible. Peterson's works on view--ranging from videos to pencil sketches, from granite slabs to photographs--include four, as I count them, treatments of the transaction between humanity and nature imagined by philosophers and represented by painters of the 19th century. But Peterson really pummels our customary ideas of the natural: she personifies, sexualizes, formalizes, and textualizes them, offering the complicated proposition that our descriptive tools pale before the experience of the natural, but that with this impoverishment comes a certain liberty and even sweetness.

The difficulty of capturing nature's power is most evident in two largely textual works. Confluence is a big banner stretching across one gallery wall; it bears a stenciled narrative of the confluence of two rivers, an anthropomorphized description of seduction and combat in block letters that sometimes reads like a soap opera script or romance novel. By far the largest work in the exhibition, the banner creates a context for the other works. Formally plain and not without humor, Confluence suggests to what extent natural events and entities must be manipulated to be understood; the cliched dramatic language seems both utterly appropriate and impossibly meager. The same can be said for Glacier (Freezing and Melting), two granite slabs placed on the floor and incised with the narrative of a glacier's progress. This story, like the one in Confluence, is told in simple block letters humanized by Peterson's vocabulary (the glacier, for instance, has a "belly" that "scrapes" the land). The slabs and their placement on the floor, where we have to bend to see them, echo the gravity and infinitesimal slowness of the glacial process, and like the plaques at national parks they describe thousands of years of natural history in a few thin sentences.

Ideas suggested by Confluence are complicated by works from the "Effluvia" series, photographs and videos of the movement of rivers, whose locations Peterson clearly specifies: Colorado River Below Hoover Dam at Night, for example, and Mississippi River Below Lock & Dam 15. These luxurious, quite beautiful works come the closest to depicting the force and magnificence of a world about which we understand little, seeming all the more powerful juxtaposed with the texts of Confluence and Glacier. The videos--both of the Colorado River--are particularly dazzling and suggestive. Patterns form and disappear, and eddies move horizontally and vertically across the screen, finally dropping off the edge. The media of video and photography transform the natural into near abstractions in which certain forms and shapes hypnotize, suggesting what a "real" experience of nature might be. Still, the abstractness of the "Effluvia" works, like the abstractions offered by the language in the text-based works, is wholly inadequate to the magnificence of the natural world.

Peterson's "North Atlantic Storms and Hurricanes" series artfully combines and expands upon the experiences suggested by the other works: the centerpiece of the exhibit, it's the site where Emerson reconciles with the local weatherman. In some 15 pencil works Peterson has mined the massive body of meteorological information in Tropical Cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean, 1871-1995, a compilation of the paths of hundreds of storms that have run into North America over the past century, retracing in pencil on tracing paper the paths of storms brought together by some whimsical, art historical, or personal connection. Thus we find a tracing of six storms with the same name, a tracing that includes one storm from every year in the life of John Cage, and a tracing of the 788 storms that have occurred since the birth of Willem de Kooning. The 13 storms to have hit Robert Rauschenberg's birthplace--Port Arthur, Texas--since 1871 have been erased.

In the "Storms and Hurricanes" series Peterson manages to give the raw data of natural events intimacy, making the grand and the sublime confinable and almost chatty, characteristics not usually associated with cyclones. Some tracings are personal: Peterson charts storms that occurred during her adolescence; another tracing is called simply "Six Storms for Carolyn." Some, like those based on Cage, de Kooning, and Rauschenberg (who once erased a drawing of de Kooning's), are located in a specific and limited art historical discourse. But all the tracings double back on our images of the "natural" by suggesting other organic forms: frantic spermatozoa, dried grasses, elegantly preserved plants.

The conceptual suggestiveness and self-containment of the storm tracings are remarkable. With very limited means, Peterson communicates both the sterility and the grandeur of natural history, the intersection of the global with the individual, and the reciprocal creativity of gods and artists. Like the ancients who explained natural phenomena in terms of deified familial relations and petty jealousies, Peterson combines natural and transcendental philosophies in a system in which the existence of nature is unimaginable without human intelligence. Particularly in her storm series, Peterson convinces me that our ongoing conceptualization of the natural world is just as lively and rich as it was a century ago, and she convinces me that capitulation to the ineffable makes possible a natural history suffused with familiarity and personality.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos from the "Effluvia" series.

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