Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Materials Matter in First Chapter of Kimball’s “Between Life and Land”

Installation view of Between Life and Land, featuring work by Collin Bradford (rear) and David Brooks (front), photo by Geoff Wichert

The title of a not-to-be-missed exhibition that opened in December at the Kimball and will extend through 2023, “Between Life and Land,” could be interpreted at least two ways. On the one hand, plants and animals could be seen as playing out their lives on whatever land they chance to occupy, just like actors play out their fictional roles on the stage — as though the location is arbitrary, trivial, and we really could pack up the show and shuffle off to Mars. It’s unlikely that any of the 30 artists whose works will be shown, in three groups of ten spaced out over the entire year, would agree. It’s helpful in appreciating their collective point of view to realize than no meaningful distinction, other than scale, can be drawn between the prospects of the occupants and those of the land they dwell on. Our lives are brief, when compared to the duration of a lake, a planet, or a star, but we know now that nothing, no matter how vast and seemingly permanent, lasts forever. As the song has it, we are star dust, our material having come from a previous generation of stars that died after billions of years, producing and releasing the elements that in turn became new stars, the planets, and all living things.

When Robert Smithson, the first of the ten artists in the opening chapter of Between Life and Land, which is subtitled “Materials,” was asked about the future of his magnum opus, “Spiral Jetty,” he did not flinch. He said it would decay and disappear. It’s likely that he’d been through the Wasatch Range and admired the hundreds of waterfalls that animate its rock cliffs, knowing full well that they were eroding those faces, and that eventually that upthrust portion of ancient sea-floor, its tilted layers of sediment so distinctively visible from Salt Lake City, would decay and be washed away, too. He would not have been surprised, not that his artwork disappeared under the flood, but to see it now, abandoned by the last liquid vestige of the inland sea known as “Lake Bonneville,” which has been dwindling for centuries and may soon evaporate completely.

Smithson not only made art of almost every kind, but changed the way those arts are practiced today. In the same way that the Jetty he built extended the footpath, a major feature of wild lands, out across the surface of the Lake, the film he made to celebrate its success carried it not just into another medium, but into another conceptual realm. Then, as his legacy was confronting its audience with the impermanence of the works of mankind, his fellow artist, Nancy Holt, was making the same point concerning the facts of nature. In time, her “Sun Tunnels” should prove that even the constellations are only temporary fixtures, constantly shifting, as they must — assuming, that is, that present-day astronomers are wrong in their prediction that as the universe continues to expand, the stars will move away so fast their light can no longer reach Earth, and they will disappear forever, leaving only a dark night sky.

Three films by those two artists about their works are at one end of Kimball, while a video by Sara Lynne Lindsay serves like a bookend at the other. Comparing Lindsay’s “Decomposing Quilt” to the foundational works of 50 years ago says a lot about how things have changed as Earth Art has given way to Land Art. The original term, which is typographically self-referential — the word Earth itself contains the word art — was an effort to take art out of the gallery and onto the planet, both in terms of actual location and finite reference. Maybe the idea that nothing is permanent didn’t get through to enough of the audience, but the message contained the seeds of its own repudiation, as broad discomfort with the idea of turning tracts of land into art — admittedly an egotistical choice for an artist to make — was part of a gradual return to galleries like the Kimball.

The gallery’s description of Lindsay’s process coincidentally graphs this trend. She travels to places where her relations were born or died, there collecting samples of “flowers, leaves, seeds, seaweed, soil, and moss,” with which she returns to her studio. There she transforms them alchemically into fabrics that will be assembled into a quilt. However, this activity quickly gives way to photographic processes, so that what will ultimately confront the viewer is not the constituents of the land, but images of them, which is both more conventional and true of most of the work in this show. Of course it’s entirely up to the viewers how they respond to the video images of the elements decaying and revitalizing, as though they were breathing (as the text says), but objectively speaking, isn’t there a difference between visiting a site in and of nature, versus viewing a film of it projected on a wall? 

Patrick Dean Hubbell, “You Balance All From the Earth to the Sky”

A quite different but intrinsically related question is raised by Patrick Dean Hubbell’s graphics. “You Balance All From the Earth to the Sky” is a powerful abstract image that seems to contain both time and space, as though a non-physical, but still personal journey gave the artist the inspiration needed to take us all on a voyage into another reality. But does his work gain anything from knowledge of the elaborate processes of finding and preparing his pigments that he requires of himself? Why is it necessary that a viewer know about it? A few decades ago, the baroque music world split apart into two camps of ensembles that were unable to play the same music together because they disagreed on which historical tuning system to use. Eventually, it was decided that the quality of the performance was what mattered, not which century the performers thought about while they played. Other than excluding other artists from their circle, is there a point to knowledge that doesn’t alter the visual experience?

Some things that have changed are important to know about. If nothing lasts forever, change can become a valid, participating component in something previously thought timeless. A recent trend towards open participation in art, seen several times here, constitutes a reaction against the formerly privileged status of the artist. Stefan Lesueur invited 17 individuals to participate in the present iteration of his ongoing video compilation, “Sky Lights,” to which the invited guests submit videos they made of their local sky, while the video medium conveniently permits them to comment along with their images. Lest issuing invitations should be seen as another privilege, Lesueur has extended a general invitation through Instagram to anyone who wishes to join in.

Another progressive video artist, Rodrigo Valenzuela, has spent a lot of time on the front lines of immigration conflicts, where working women and men struggle with restrictive fictions about land, property, and boundaries. In response, he questions the equally dubious, equally alleged borders between categories like documentary and drama, in films like “Meditations on Land.” Here he appears half-buried alive, floundering in dirt and dust to make a point about how laborers are alienated from, and harassed about, industries like food production to which their participation is essential. 

Mary Mattingly’s “Soil Stories” at Park City’s Kimball Art Center, photo by Geoff Wichert

The least conventional artwork here is at the core of Mary Mattingly’s “Soil Stories,” another instance of the artist-as-impresario. A part of her multiple-disciplinary “Ecotopian Library” project, “Soil Stories” includes both samples sent to her from all over the country and comments from those who submitted them. In this instance, 372 small bottles of dirt are shown on six shelves, 62 bottles per shelf. Occasionally they appear to be organized by color, or generate the illusion of a horizon line extending across a shelf, but it’s equally likely that’s just pareidolia — the phenomenon where patterns are seen (or heard) to appear in large amounts of data that are actually random — a perceptual trick which is often the enemy of common sense. The meanings that lie behind or within this collection can be found in the filing cabinet next to it, wherein may be found the stories sent in with the samples, which the viewer is encouraged to open and peruse at will.

Nature may be the dominant subject matter of today’s art, but it’s not always easy to tell what a given artist finds in its contemplation. When it comes to materials, the theme of this portion of “Between Life and Land,” Colour Maisch is surely a master. Her works characteristically begin not in the pursuit of a foregone conclusion, but rather in an exploration of the material qualities of whatever she finds or creates that entices her. In her statement, she says in part, “I create lush textures and quiet compositions that present waste and decomposition as a site of beauty and intrigue.” Her interest is in the give and take of natural events and processes, such as using the slow absorption of ink into grass, paper, or clay, as well as evaporation, not to mimic them the way art copies nature, but to initiate and manipulate real and illustrative examples. 

Colour Maisch, “Mono / Duo (Parts of the Whole),” courtesy the artist

In the present instance, as is typical of her best work, porcelain plays a central role. Sometimes she infuses it into other materials, which burn off when the clay is fired: a process analogous to the way minerals permeate organic matter over many years to produce fossils. Maisch’s resulting, evocatively beautiful objects combine the durability of porcelain with its fragility, so that time truly becomes part of them. In “Mono / Duo (Parts of the Whole)” an ink-stained clay meditation on harmony, she compromised the porcelain so that it came out already eroding, then sawed it in half to contrast natural and artificial surfaces. Both it and its companion, “Remainder,” are surrounded by fragments of themselves that document their deterioration. Frank McEntire, an old hand at this sort of art making, has speculated about giving the collector a quantity of crushed stone in case the original is accidentally lost to overenthusiastic dusting. In Maisch’s case, the continuing production of small bits of evidence of time’s passage is part of what makes it her art.

There is, of course, no universal agreement about the human role in a broader, natural world. On first viewing Collin Bradford’s “Future Perfect,” without reference to its title, it suggested a bit of nature in a form of bondage: a rock face such as might have been created by a road-building crew that was then covered with a manufactured mesh to prevent falling detritus from endangering traffic below. However, the book he placed on his print of the ground surface and his work’s title together indicate another reading. Annie Dillard, whose “Teaching a Stone to Talk” (a dubious title in the opinion of someone who thinks it’s our task to learn to interpret what a rock is already saying) is a popular author whose belief in a spiritual realm distinct and apart from the natural order lets her envision nature as an obstacle to a pilgrim seeking divinity. This results in what amounts to an Old Testament view, that proper collaboration or stewardship by Man is all Nature requires, as might be indicated by the nearly invisible web of steel holding the mountain in place.    

In fact, at present the foremost thought about saving the natural world is that humanity needs to learn to leave at least a good third of it alone: keeping it apart as a place where the genius of natural processes can continue to operate. One work here that supports this view, by looking closely at the alternative — that opens slowly in the mind until it becomes impossible to dismiss from consciousness — is David Brooks’ elaborate and extensive “Death Masks for Landscape.” The installation, which truly qualifies as multi-media, includes drone-shot scans of forested locations in the Amazon basin, specifically parts of Peru and Ecuador, that were made immediately before their trees were completely clear-cut. These scans play on wall screens around the periphery of the installation. From those scans, scale models of the soon-to-be-destroyed environments were made, and from those, aluminum versions were cast. The choice of aluminum as a sculptural medium was not casual, since the trees are being killed not only for the free timber they provide, but in order to facilitate removing the oil and bauxite — aluminum ore — lying beneath them. The replicas of the destroyed fauna are shown on the floor, as they might look from an airplane — the kind of remote vantage that is as close as most of us will ever come to what is being destroyed, after all, for our benefit. The title comes from the long tradition, prior to the invention of photography, of producing a death mask of a deceased person to remember them by, and the GPS data is engraved on the mask, even as the name was often inscribed on the coffin.  

Drone scans from David Brooks’ “Death Masks for Landscape.”

Aluminum scale models from David Brooks’ “Death Masks for Landscape,” photo by Geoff Wichert

If the natural order collapses, there will be no one to write mankind’s name on its grave. The materials that supported life may still be here, but whether and when living things will recover we cannot know. Further contemplation of the problem may be found in the work of the artists who will be featured in part 2 of Between Life and Land, which will follow “Materials” and focus on “Identity,” which begins at the Kimball on April 21st.

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