Land, Lots of Land | Art Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Land, Lots of Land 

Lina Bertucci

at Rhona Hoffman, through October 19

Joel Sternfeld:

Walking the High Line

at Schneider, through October 26

Imposing scale, rich details, seductive depth, and a mix of ordinariness and oddity give a startling presence to Lina Bertucci's seven color landscapes at Rhona Hoffman, most at least four feet on the smaller side (the show also includes two portraits). Climbing a steep, mostly barren hill in Untitled (Economy of Truth) are three distant figures, one leaping in midair. A vaguely repellent heavy orange tint colors even the few green plants present, exaggerating the scene's desert aspect. The hill's curve and the figures with their backs to us create a seductive space that invites us to join their quest, but their apparent destination--the horizon, where only a few dead trees are visible--has an edge-of-the-world feel. Untitled (Visitors), which shows a narrower portion of the same landscape and three figures again traveling upward, is almost as disturbing. Here the colors are more natural, but the moon peeking through clouds makes the sky dramatic, slightly ominous. In both pictures the threatening, even engulfing space introduces a faint whiff of apocalypse.

Bertucci, who was born in Milwaukee in 1959, dates her interest in the placement of figures in space to a job she had while in college: she and an aunt were the first women brakemen on the Milwaukee Road railway line. Bertucci began to take pictures at work, partly because she wanted to document the railroad and industrial milieu that was starting to disappear, and partly because the men there were harassing her: "I felt that the camera allowed me to maintain my identity--it was one way of giving myself some kind of power."

In subsequent years her subjects were usually groups of her friends hanging out or visitors to New York (where she'd moved in 1978) in their hotel rooms. But the midwestern landscape had its effect when she moved to Chicago three years ago: "I don't think I'd seen the horizon line in years--I didn't really pay attention to the sky. I started photographing typologies of clouds and skies and water just for myself." On a trip to Nevada she took three landscape images she later combined digitally, moving away from her training in traditional photography. The present work is shot on film using a medium-format camera, and the image is scanned into a digital file that Bertucci alters--she might remove a figure or replace the sky. She then uses the file to make a negative for conventional printing.

Most interesting about Bertucci's pictures is their quality of performance. Relying less than conventional photographs on the arrangement of shapes and colors for their effect, they almost seem documents of strange events--though only a few were actually staged. There are no figures in Untitled (Presence), shot in Lake Michigan's dunes, and a gel has thickened the sand's color and rendered the sky orange. Strewn on the sand are pieces of driftwood and a thick cylindrical log--some viewers have mistakenly thought Bertucci arranged the wood. Overall the composition gives a feeling of unspecified portent.

In Untitled (The Searcher), shot in southern California, the landscape seems incomprehensibly vast. A lone woman on a plain appears to be bending over slightly, once again facing a hill denuded, probably by clear-cutting. Bertucci found the woman digging around in a desert 85 miles northeast of LA and asked her to pose; later Bertucci replaced the original sky with another. The composition has none of the well-ordered feeling of a conventional landscape photo; instead the various textures of plain and hill and the way the plain rises to the hill seem to overwhelm the composition's borders.

An elevated railway runs for more than a mile on Manhattan's west side, snaking between the buildings. Originally used by the New York Central to deliver freight and abandoned for two decades, the High Line is now a relic of the era when Manhattan saw significant shipping and manufacturing. A few years ago renowned color landscape photographer Joel Sternfeld, a New Yorker born there in 1944, began making lush photographs of the railroad pathway, seven of which are on view at Schneider. Meanwhile a group called Friends of the High Line (of which Sternfeld is "a big supporter") are fighting its demolition.

Like Bertucci's, Sternfeld's large-format prints (made from eight-by-ten negatives) seem to burst from their frames, as if these scenes could not be penned in. A Railroad Artifact, 30th Street looks west from a metal box in the foreground, between the two tracks. As in all the photos in the show, the roadbed is overgrown with plants. The effect is almost surreal: we see a chaotic patch of unmodified nature between decades-old Manhattan loft buildings, one plastered with a Gap ad, and the towers of the Empire State Building and Metropolitan Life framing the tracks in the background. Rarely has the disjunction between a city's rectilinear and organic forms been more dramatically articulated, a drama underlined by the way the tracks stretch to the distant horizon, inviting the viewer to traverse this wilderness surrounded by city. In an article by Adam Gopnik in the book that collects this series, Walking the High Line, Sternfeld says that "Central Park is really cosmetic...a beautiful construct, but made for an effect," whereas the High Line offers "the real look of spring."

Two years ago the Art Institute presented a site-specific installation by Olafur Eliasson, Succession, for which he placed a planter outside a second-story gallery window: visitors were greeted by an up-close view of grassland in front of the former Illinois Central tracks. Sternfeld's prints have a similar eye-filling effect, partly because of their large size and the way his compositions focus attention on the tracks--they're less self-contained artworks than immersions in nature, offering an alternative to the city's look and organization. Queen Anne's Lace faces the Hudson, the tracks filled with the flowers. The river looks soft and misty, but a train yard at lower right reminds us of the urban context. Looking South at 27th Street shows a particularly wild stretch of railway line, with small trees on the left; in the background, the tracks pass between two loft buildings and, in the far distance, seem to enter a forest.

Though property owners have long objected to this old, unused structure, Sternfeld told Gopnik, "I just pray that, if they save the High Line, they'll save some of the virgin parts, so that people can have this kind of hallucinatory experience of nature in the city." The landscape presented in Ken Robson's Christmas Tree is certainly hallucinatory. In the background, one floor of a loft building is brightly illuminated and seems to house one of the many art galleries that have flocked to the area in recent years. Such clean, white, airy spaces contrast even more dramatically with the wildness of the tracks, Sternfeld seems to gently suggest, than industry did. One of two trees in the foreground is bare, but the smaller of them, only a foot or two high, is an evergreen hung with Christmas lights.

This is the kind of intervention Sternfeld favors, a small, temporary decoration that leaves nature basically unaltered. But most favor the well-manicured world of art galleries and landscaped parks. Even the Friends of the High Line, citing a similar structure in Paris converted into a walkway/ garden, advocate creating "a one-of-a-kind recreational amenity: a grand, public promenade."

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