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Oct182008

The Sublime and the Picturesque: "After Nature" at the New Museum and "Implant" at UBS


Because our lives depend upon it how we think of nature is being re-imagined and contested, and it may well be that this will have consequences for how we think of knowledge at all. There is something differently at work in the two exhibitions "After Nature" and "Implant." They are close enough in their orientation towards nature to make visible similar appearances in contemporary art, yet they each align themselves towards these appearances differently.

Both exhibitions show that we are consumed by nature, rather than simply consumers of it. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, "After Nature" might name the impossible chase after a nature in excess of us. "Implant," curated by Jodie Vicenta Jacobson for the Horticultural Society of New York, explores the co-evolutionary drive of human and botanical desires alike. In "Implant" the borders between nature and culture dissolve in shared beneficent artifice.

Both curators place in our hands a book other than an exhibition catalog. For Gioni, W.G Sebald’s book "After Nature" has exhibition images slipped loosely into its pages. In this book there is no lasting human contact in the face of excess and loss. Its last pages leave us in the “strange, unexplored, African continent,” and with the question of what love can be in such a world. Jacobson is more straightforwardly presenting a theory, and Michael Pollan’s “Botany of Desire” is the point of reference. Pollan explains that for Darwin the use of the word “artifice” was not in the sense of there being something fake so much as in its being an artifact reflecting human will. In our own time even the weather is an artifact, and Darwin’s natural selection - what once took place in the wild - is nearly inconceivable. According to Pollan, however, we are in fact "the objects of other species designs and desires...”.

A comparison of William Christenberry’s Kudzu With Storm Cloud near Akron, Alabama, 1981, from "After Nature," and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Alice B.Toklas & Gertrude Stein’s Grave, Paris), 1992, from "Implant," bears the weight of this difference. Christenberry has photographed kudzu, an African vine that grows wildly in the American south, and that as a child the artist was fearful of. Growing as much as one and a half feet in the course of a single day, kudzu shrouds the trees that it has choked to death. Gonzalez-Torres’ photograph honors a non-reproductive relationship that has gathered its own flowers, taking root and flourishing. The flowers, themselves immobile and incapable of reproduction but for their dependence on other species, have seduced us and been disseminated in our culture of mourning and love.

On the whole there is a sense of poetic dissonance in "After Nature," qualifying differently the intimacy that a more benevolent coevolution explores. In the video Forest (Diploma Film), 1993, Pawel Althamer abandons his urban life, dropping his clothes at the edge of the city and disappearing into the impossible myth of the lone primate gone back to nature. His sculptural nudes are made of animal intestines sewn together with hemp and stuffed with straw, and of them he says ”the body plays the role of a dress, of an address. My bodily address is Pawel Althamer.” It is as though the self has no core and is only what has been installed in a skinbag for a period of time. Delicate and slightly grotesque, Althamer’s sculptures mimic the forms of a history of sculpture.

In "Implant," Nick Cave floridly adorns the body with a blend of African, Victorian, kitsch and haute couture. There is not even room for eyes to see with from the center of this ornament. In contrast to Pawel’s skinbag, Cave’s figure appears as a form of fantastic masquerade. He says of these works, “I believe that the familiar must move towards the fantastic. I want to evoke feelings that are un-named, that aren’t realized except in dreams.” Cave’s excessive costume is hypnotic and transformative, whereas Pawel’s sculptures seem to depict a frank estrangement of the self in the preservation of it.

What characterizes an outsider is also different for each exhibition. “After Nature” exhibits the prayer cards of Howard Finster, the paintings and TV dinner chicken bone sculptures of Eugene von Breunchenheim, and the Celestographs of August Strindberg. These last, made by laying photo-sensitive paper under the night sky, were both mystical inspiration and failure. Throughout his life Strindberg believed he had captured the night sky, but these beautiful images are in fact traces of dust. The distance between belief and fact is measured by this historical correction, but Strindberg’s nineteenth century mysticism importantly remains embedded there.

"Implant’s" outsiders are those artists associated with mimetic craft. In particular, the botanical paintings of Carol Woodin, Jude Miller’s paper flowers, and the wooden carvings of Jim Sams are straightforward in their mimeticism, but they are hardly matter-of-fact in the awe they can inspire. Jim Sams is self-taught, and he explains that “My goal has remained the same throughout the years - to capture and freeze in time the fleeting beauty and movement of my natural subjects.”

"After Nature" includes the work of 24 artists, and "Implant" 45, with no overlap between them. These are not small exhibitions, and it would be wrong to categorize them entirely, yet these few comparisons barely scratch the surface of a certain kind of symmetry. It is as though old habits have shown up unannounced. There has been some discussion on this blog around the value of concepts for art criticism, and I wonder what is lost or gained if we regard these exhibitions as manifestations of the sublime and the picturesque, not only to describe categories of art and nature but aspects of thought as well.

By Catherine Spaeth

Photo credits, in order of appearance: (from "Implant") Gabriel Orozco (b. 1962, Mexico), Mi Oficina II, 1992, Cibachrome, 16 x 20 inches, Edition EX, Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; William Christenberry, Kudzu with Storm Cloud Near Akron, Alabama, 1981, Digital pigment print, 17x22", Courtesy of Pace/McGill; Felix Gonzalez-Torres (b. 1957, Cuba; d.1996, United States), "Untitled" (Alice B. Toklas' and Gertrude Stein's Grave, Paris), 1992, Framed C-print, 29 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches, Image: 15 3/4 x 23 1/4 inches, Edition of 4, 1 AP,Photo: Peter Muscato,(c) The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation; Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; Pawel Althamer, Study From Nature, 1991, Grass straw and animal intestine, Courtesy of Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens; Nick Cave (b. 1959, United States), Soundsuit, 2008, Mixed media, 100 x 25 x 14 inches, Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; Jim Sams (b. 1954, United States), Dwarf Crested Iris, 2008, Wood and acrylic paint,6 x 6 x 4 inches, Courtesy of the artist.

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