Saturday, September 28, 2013

“This Land” – Exhibition at Salisbury University Galleries, August/September 2013

In 2004, Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama, was traveling through  Montana when he looked out a car window and recognized something from his dreams:  the massive shapes of mountains floating upon the earth like lotus blossoms on a pond.   From this initial moment of  encounter and inspiration, when earthly elements in the Jocko Valley and the mountain ranges surrounding it conspired to offer a vision to Rinpoche that he reverently embraced, something quite special under the sun has been emerging: a magnificent garden centering on a gold-leafed statue of Yum Chenmo, the Great Mother, a feminine instantiation of Buddha.  Rising two stories above a green meadow with her hands arranged in the mudra expressing the transmission of tradition, the Great Mother’s golden face greets the lotus-shaped mountains with a sublime smile offering limitless compassion and supremely active wisdom.   She in turn serves as the hub for a great wheel with eight spokes emanating from her multi-colored, lotus-shaped seat, each spoke inhabited by two ranks of white Buddhas sitting back to back in unbroken contemplation.  Beyond the rim of the wheel, whose wide arc is composed of innumerable, waist-high stupas, are arranged in the four directions four Buddhas in dark stone, each garlanded daily with freshly gathered blossoms, each gazing back in turn to the figure of Yum Chenmo at the center.  In all, the garden is home to a thousand Buddhas, a river valley and several mountain ranges.  To walk the garden pathways is not only to rediscover the manifold insights of an ancient and venerable religious tradition but also to confront the power inherent in the land here and now to inspire and instantiate that tradition, its aspirations and longings.

‘Land’ is one of those basic words in the English language, serving as a necessary staple, if you will, in our speaking of the world and our place in it.  Indeed, the very notion of finding one’s place in the world only makes sense if there is some land in that place upon which one can set one’s feet. In its most abstract sense, land designates a particular area on the planet’s surface, as long as it is not covered with water. Yet even underneath the waters, land abides, providing the stay by which the waters are upheld.   To simply think of land, then, as a circumscribed area on the planet’s surface trivializes its role in both human and planetary existence.  For we regularly go to war over land, or at the very least, end up in court with unremitting regularity disputing ownership, rights and covenants in regard to land.  And in the American narrative of westward movement, the dignity and freedom offered by land, recommended by Jefferson’s notion of the yeoman farmer and later codified into law through the homestead act, is a decisive and abiding element, for better and worse, of our culture.  Indeed, the very movement westward proved to be a wholesale usurpation of tribal lands of First Peoples, an act whose injustice and violence America has yet to fully admit let alone satisfactorily resolve.  And this latter point reminds us that in land we find concretely and uncannily at play the rights and interests and loves of other humans, indeed of all other humans, not to mention of all other living kinds, whether they be plentiful raccoons or endangered fox squirrels, unwanted poison ivy or the lovely though miniscule blossoms of draba celebrated by Aldo Leopold.

For better or worse then, human cultures have been defining themselves through the land in which they would reside since the beginning of human tenancy upon the face of the earth  As to the worse in our own time,  the gallery viewer might consider Eric LoPresti’s epic yet hellish (the Anglo-Saxon equivalent to the Latinate ‘dystopian’) landscapes, in which clouds of dust stirred up from atomic blasts scour the earth and yet reveal in that very alteration something sublime even if monstrous, something compelling and seductive, even if destructive and apocalyptic.   LoPresti’s work would remind us that not so far from Rinpoche’s beatific garden in the Jocko Valley – in fact, just over the continental divide 60 miles to the east – lies a fleet of minuteman missiles, cocked and ready to fire, ham-fisted weapons with the capacity to annihilate entire cities and indiscriminately poison the soil, water and air surrounding them for generations.  As a child growing up on the high plains in Montana I remember the sudden presence of men smartly appointed in Air Force uniforms explaining the massive construction project that was taking place all around us. One very personable speaker even attempted to ignite with a blowtorch a flake of the solid material fueling the missiles to show us locals how inert and harmless it was, at least until activated with an electronic impulse.  Of course, the nuclear warhead to be installed on top of a tower of that fuel was another matter and remained unmentioned in his talk.  Soon the earth was peppered with underground silos capped by great concrete lids and fenced off from any approach.  Constructed by army-green earthmovers and caterpillar tractors, beautifully graded roads for hauling the bombs and delivery vehicles to their duly appointed resting places appeared overnight stretching across the landscape.  In all of this was an effort not unlike in effect and exceeding by far in economic means that of Rinpoche’s garden: a re-envisioning of what it meant to belong to a human culture by a re-envisioning and reworking of the land upon which that culture makes its home under the sun.  

In viewing  the exhibition ably put together by Liz Kaufman and Marisa Sage, the onlooker might keep in mind the manifold ways in which the very shape and sense of our human existence is constituted by how we come to define our relationship with land and how land inevitably responds in its own way to that gesture.  It’s not just up to us after all.  The land also is apt at making itself know even in our most insistent attempts to turn it into the mere reflection of our own interests and desires.
Liz Kaufmann’s curatorial approach asks that the gallery-goer comes to deeper insights not only about the respective practices of artists in their approach to land but also to entertain what one learns from the juxtaposition of these different approaches.   Land is no more fixed in its meaning and possibilities, it turns out, than is the human imagination.   For instance, the epic gestures of LoPresti’s paintings, in which the immensity of planetary surfaces and the primordial forces unleashed in and on them, find an arresting counter-point in the deeply interior landscapes of Kevin Barnes.  In the latter’s work, the light by which tree, meadow or forest is illuminated and so land is revealed in its fullness to the human eye comes from within as much as without.  In his act of painting the land, Barnes would be true to its facts, to its given.  The land has its say.  But at the same time a “distillation” of vision and an intensification of reality takes place in these canvases that find a second life for the landscape in the hypersensitivity of the human mind to color and form.  Magical realism is at work here, although certainly not a magical realism merely introducing fantastic items or elements into an otherwise mundane world.  What is magical, Barnes teaches us, is color and form itself.  And for Barnes the land provides a peculiarly powerful initiation into this magic.

Engaging the land in magical realism of another sort are the photographic performances of Megan Crump.  As with Barnes, the intimacy of one’s contact with the land is paramount.   But in Crump the magical is worked out not so much in color and form, although they have their say, as in personal ritual and shamanistic

transformation.  David Abram, a philosopher who has written tellingly about animistic perspectives on a more-than-human living world identifies the shape-shifting qualities of perception, its metamorphic, protean capacities, as crucial to indigenous frames of mind.  Crump’s photographs work out Abram’s insight by introducing her own body into the land and so into the photographic image she produces of the land.  But this is accomplished so that the very appearance of Crump’s human form tricks the eye, unhinging its assumptions of what might be occurring.  For me a powerful moment of recognition took place when what appeared to be a rather pedestrian fallen tree trunk next to a creek in “Roots” turned out to be Crump’s naked body, carefully arranged to emerge from the undergrowth to appear like a pedestrian fallen tree trunk next to a creek.  In that uncanny and shamanistic transformation, I found myself challenged to see that seeing is itself unhinged by powers at work when land and body become radically open to the possibilities they call forth in one another.

Yet another tack on the role of the land in defining human culture comes in Dan Mill’s “Quest” series, which is composed of abstract portraits of actual maps derived from colonial history.  His paintings invite the gallery-goer to become enchanted yet again with the artifice of map-making, its love of lines and colors as they divvy up the space of a two-dimensional surface.  Indeed, humans of all cultures love maps of all sorts.  Aboriginal painters from Australia, for instance, often transpose traditional maps tracing storylines through country into scintillating fields of color and space on a canvas. But underlying and subverting this enchantment in Mill’s case is the historical provenance of the particular patchworks of color in which he is interested.  The classification and parceling out of land in the history of European map-making has all too often meant the dispossession of others.   The colonial map is a map of discovery that quickly transmutes itself into a map of usurpation.   Indeed, the map in an Air Force file that locates the minuteman missiles scattered about the high plains of Montana overlays a landscape inhabited for some 10,000 years by tribal peoples whose place under the sun has been constricted only since the European arrival to the stingily drawn lines on yet another colonial map defining a so-called Reservation.

Perhaps as well the gallery goer should remember that her or his very footsteps tread the land once part of the Tundotank Reservation of the Wicomico People.  What artwork would be sufficient to register that fact, bear witness to this strange doubled vision of land that is at once home and stolen, at once the land of 
Tundotank and of Tony Tank (a Colonial name derived from the former Native American one) Creek?  Mills leaves that question with us.  And Peter Stern's "Nentego," a mural composed of aerial photographs of land once inhabited by the Nanticoke People takes the gallery viewer one step closer to answering that question, although I cannot imagine, in contradistinction to the artist's own view on this matter, that anywhere on the Eastern Shore a forest unaltered by European incursion remains.

In spite of the historical violence and ecological devastation that is being played out across the surface of the planet, including our own Eastern Shore, the land can still glisten.  And its weathers can still flourish, even if altered in terrible ways by Global Climate Change.  Through the digital arts informed by computer software, data recording and image projection, Mark Nystrom’s alchemical transformation of the winds blowing over the roof of Fulton Hall is not only beautiful in its aesthetic impact but also deeply informative of the remarkable complexity of the wind’s movement, its mercurial gestures with their varying intensities and orientations. All too often the living world has become a vague presence to the denizens of contemporary technocratic culture, who have all too often reduced the earth to a green blur passing by its car windows, or an entertaining flickering of colors and shapes on a computer screen.  But in “Air Current(s)” Nystrom, rather than abjuring the omnipresent technological processing of the living world characterizing our time has challenged himself and his audience to embrace it in a manner that is more rather than less heedful of the land and its many subtle qualities.  Electronically illuminated screens need not always be a way of veiling or blunting our interaction with the elements of land.  They can also uncover truths about it that would otherwise go unnoticed.   In offering the winds for the gallery-goer’s discernment and contemplation, Nystrom’s work is not unlike Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche’s garden mentioned above, which is itself ringed by eight prayer flags perpetually fluttering and falling with the winds.

I am thankful to the curator of this show and the artists included in it for having given me the opportunity to renew my own all too thoughtless relationship with the more-than-human living world.  As these works remind the gallery goer, the land requires much of us if we are to abide heedfully upon it.   While in no way do any of the artists involved in this exhibition advocate for a simplistic nativism, neither do they counsel that we ignore the place upon the earth in which our existence is offered its colors and forms, its depth and meaning.  That enduring and profound struggles emerge in this process, that the outcome is at time times ambivalent and even disturbing does not excuse us from the challenge these works pose for us.    The land is waiting for our reply.