New York

Michael Singer

Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery

Earthworks generally radicalize our perception of landscape by altering it in some unnatural way; Michael Singer’s modest works of the past few years, photographs of which were shown recently, investigate and comment upon natural processes without imposing on them. The pieces he has produced in Florida swamps and New York State forests are so at one with their surroundings that his discreet interventions pass virtually unnoticed.

The swamp works consist of reeds and grasses bundled or propped casually to preserve their natural appearance. They bend with the breezes, are reflected in the water, and keep on such intimate terms with their natural counterparts that the two are often barely distinguishable. The forest pieces footnote evolution in a similar manner. Felled trees and branches are tumbled in among the standing ones, much as one expects to find a dead tree in the woods, toppled of its own accord.

The titles of these works—“Ritual Series”—reinforce the sense of reverence that pervades them. They bring to mind the awe of primitive peoples for natural phenomena, the associations, often religious or anthropomorphic, which they attach to specific objects or locations, and the sway which natural forces hold over them. Singer accepts nature, drawing attention to the subtleties of its processes without presuming to restructure or estheticize it.

Such discretion, if dwelled upon, can prove tiring, so one is glad to turn to his more palpable efforts. A series of drawings and a piece constructed in the gallery bear further witness to his ecological inclinations. The drawings, also titled “Ritual Series,” are studies for the outdoor pieces, though not directly related in design, as is most often the case with sculptural studies. These, bold swipes of chalk and charcoal combined with collaged elements (torn-up bits of previous drawings), resemble the outdoor pieces only in spirit. The random naturalness of their gestures, combined with the ongoing destruction and rejuvenation implicit in the collage, links them in conception to the outdoor work, which, in method, “collages” nature with broken-off bits of itself.

The gallery piece, his most consciously “fabricated” work, was less interesting—an elegant construction of polelike bundles of reeds supported a few inches off the floor by a wooden framework perched on rocks. It resembled some sort of tribal vehicle—a catamaran, perhaps—which one might expect to see being poled down a tropical river.

Singer’s art, though clearly located in the Earthwork genre, reflects the interests of a sort of “second generation” of outdoor artists who concern themselves more with environmental interpretation than “charging” landscape esthetically—bulldozing ditches in the desert or dumping asphalt down a hillside. The gentle lyricism of Singer’s pieces can be seen as a rejection of the artistic assertiveness of earlier Earthworks’ monumental gestures. But their ultimate success becomes problematic in this context. Is the artist’s self-effacement, though ecologically laudable, a viable esthetic posture? Singer’s work raises the question, but remains ambivalent about the answer.

––Nancy Foote