Thursday, December 2, 2010

an attempt at getting my hands dirty

I have been at odds with, and seeking an antidote to the precious-ification (if any of my wordsmith friends out there know a real word that means this, please let me know) of the natural world in a new way since moving to Portland last year. This region is filled with true appreciators, adventurers, environmentalists, and so on. But there is also a very prevalent aesthetic in the depiction of the natural world specific to this region (and more widespread, but it's endemic here) that makes me absolutely recoil. When I first arrived here and started to see it everywhere I looked, it had a huge effect on my own practice. I was making work that, outside of this context, felt genuine, and exciting to me. In this new context, it suddenly felt completely cliche and flat. I came to a screeching halt with the series that got me into graduate school. I shoved it into the darkness of my portfolio. The work I made thereafter was stark, and described to me by some as "academic" or "specimen-like". In many ways, this aesthetic fell in line with my conceptual path, but part of this jump was absolutely a response to this place. I was reacting against the contemporary picturesque. I felt vehemently against it. I've spent my time since then working on articulating why.

Historically, the idea of the picturesque allowed for the artificial composition of landscapes for the sake of including those qualities of nature that best emphasized its untamed, wild beauty. Whether the natural features all truthfully existed within one picture plane or not was thought to be less important. The unintended consequence of the picturesque, as described by Malcolm Andrews in Landscape and Western Art, is that “The Picturesque view of nature is one that appreciates landscape in so far as it resembles known works of art.” One does not have to think hard to see the harm such attitudes could have on the preservation of actual nature – if it does not resemble a grand landscape painting, is it worth preserving? Is the true value of nature merely in appearance? To make nature precious is to put it at grave risk. While I believe the Romantic and Naturalist artists and writers' motivations to preserve nature were authentic, I see problems in the way their words and treatments perhaps unintentionally perpetuate nature as decoration, and as commodity. The Contemporary Picturesque can be just as vapid.

The reality of nature is not accurately depicted or experienced when one's interaction with it is heavily mediated. We want to be outside, we want to be off in the woods, but we don't want the violence. We don't want the danger. We bring mountain goats into Olympic National Park (perhaps to make it look more like the picture in our head of rugged western mountain scenes), and then when one fatally attacks a hiker, for the first time since their introduction to the park in the 1920s, the public outcry includes calls for their removal and/or complete elimination. This trend can be traced back to the development of pastoral living as an upper-class privilege. The manner in which the new class of rural residents integrated themselves into the countryside was problematic. While many claims were made of this more pure, natural lifestyle, it was an extremely mediated existence. The residents of Villas were incredibly selective with their interactions with the natural world, using their gardens and lawns as buffers or transition zones between the home and the wild. One might argue that the level of mediation negated the entire claim of a more natural lifestyle.

At the risk of stepping out of my academic, specimen-like zone, I will say that this is a conflict that really tugs at the core of my being. We all want to try to be a part of something, and do it all the way. Often, that is dangerous, and we have to risk parts of ourselves, emotionally, physically...therefor, often we are selective with our leaps. How high we will leap from. What ground we will trust to leap upon. Jarring loose parts of ourselves that we prefer to leave uninspected in the shadows. Those who leap without abandon make us defensive and anxious. Those people are less afraid than us, and it highlights our fear.

I had a moment on the train this summer looking through a dirty glass window at a stretch of rich brown soil, and I knew if I could just step off the train for a moment, and push my hands wrist deep into the dirt, I would remember it forever [perhaps I will anyway, because the desire itself was so strong], and that my experience would be much more whole. If I had been able to do that, I would probably be able to tell you what the light was like, if it was warm out, if there was a breeze, and if there was a breeze, what did it smell like. My experience would have transcended the cerebral relationship to the dirt that I was limited to that day. Because really, who wants a cerebral relationship to dirt? I remember more about the subsequent day in the mountains when I was stung by a scorpion.

In some new drawings, I am working on ways to visualize this conflict. Everyone knows that animals can be violent, and some would argue (though I might disagree) that their behaviors are entirely instinctually motivated. That which sets us apart from them, in part, is our higher consciousness.  I am very interested in the real psychology, as well as the mythology of nature's effect on the human psyche, as far as bringing out our more animalistic qualities. I want to confront that violence, in a broader sense. I can't help but to intellectualize it. Nevertheless, it is visceral. As difficult as it can be to digest on that visceral level, it is completely whole, and unmediated. It can shake us out of our domesticity of the mind. It may be what is most feared in our animal selves, but what better way to remind someone of that part of us which has tremendous value, than to take it to the extreme? Isn't that a valid and effective way to learn something deeply? To be confronted with that which is uncomfortable.


  1. Though it's not quite the denotative meaning, I suspect "gentrification" could quite easily be used to describe what you're against. After all, in both cases, isn't it an attempt to co-opt the real qualities of something (or some place) and simplify the character of it until both its original character and real qualities have been totally replaced by less threatening ones? Maybe Yogi Bear is just a gentrified version of what's out in the forests, eating both pic-a-nic baskets and the picnickers who bring them alike.

    (P.S.: Yes, we should definitely collaborate on some writing or something, too.)

  2. J,

    I feel you. and it seems like you feel this, in a very strong way. and maybe that's the point. i think you really said it when you recounted the experience of forcing your hands in the dirt, or getting stung by the scorpion. the natural world is something you feel, smell, listen too, and you there's an intensity in this response that is at once genuine to you, and for all of us.

    Lately I've been thinking less in conceptual/language/visual ways about experiences, and more about visceral, bodily, "messy" ways, (as you call it). I was just recommended a great book by Helen Molesworth called Part Object, Part Sculpture, and she makes this really good argument for a return to the body, or our visceral experiences of something as being both profound and universal. She uses Duchamp's postwar handmade readymandes as a starting point, and just breaks it all open from there. good stuff. let's chat sometime!