“Land Marks”

Edith C. Blum Art Institute, Bard College

In the late ’60s artists learned afresh that they had a drive and responsibility to work in the world at large as opposed to the confines of gallery or museum, and the world many environmental artists sought was the vast open spaces of desolate and uninhabited landscapes. In the ’80s many artists feel a continued or renewed compulsion to work in the world, yet with the added factors of technology and the engagement of people. For many artists the public and technological issues are not simply abstractions, but dynamic forces and form-givers. The “Land Marks” exhibition was an ambitious and provocative exploration of these shifting currents in environmental art.

Curated by Linda Weintraub, the exhibition was focused enough to make comparisons meaningful and open enough to encourage a diversity of interpretations. Weintraub selected a 5.7-acre site on the Bard College campus and invited over 20 artists to develop proposals. The group included older and younger environmental artists, and, while this was hardly a mentor-apprentice situation, the value of tradition as well as of invention was strongly felt. The site included a meadow, woods, and a steeply declining ravine. Most artists chose to work with the open space and more visible conditions of the meadow, but a few chose sites in the wooded areas and ravine, creating a prelude of discovery for viewers before they encountered the artwork.

One feels a temptation to develop an organizing matrix to classify the work, but somehow this seems to miss the point. The plurality of productions is worth supporting rather than diminishing. Three pieces demonstrate the breadth of investigation. Jody Pinto’s proposals included a reinterpretation of the five-spoked catherine wheel, a craggy labyrinth in rotted timber and cracked cement block seeded with grass, with inner chambers to be explored. While 5, Spoke Catherine Wheel did not reorder the site, it seemed to issue from the conditions and contours of its rural context, while also appearing to rotate on its own momentum. Pinto joined myth and landscape sensibilities to direct a tension between what we see and the stories we perpetuate to deal with what we cannot comprehend.

Helen and Newton Harrison continued their analysis of the borders of art, observation, and experimentation, but their Pure Water Still, while perverse, seemed too much like a school science-fair entry. The proposal involved the construction of a structure/sculpture to yield pure water through condensation. Placed at the highest elevation of the field, the water ran downhill through a pipe ending in a spigot in the college art gallery. The spigot had Duchampian and ironic tonalities, yet the project conveyed no new information. The Harrisons’ strength has always been a didactic quality, but here the instructional exercise had little content.

Robert Stackhouse used no natural materials or phenomena, but proposed a massive installation of cast aluminum elements suggesting the rotting and sun-bleached hulls of old ships. Hudson Prospect/River Bones recalled the shipping industry of the Hudson while gently echoing the undulations of the meadow. His recapitulation of history and his intuitive response to the site had a circumstantial character that many proposals lacked or evaded.

The attitude toward site continues to be an urgent aspect of all environmental art. The term “site specific” has fulfilled its predictable destiny and become a meaningless identification. In “Land Marks” some artists perceived the site as a neutral situation to be employed to further develop an idea in evolution, while others explored its peculiarities more directly. These complex perceptions of site deserve as much scrutiny as any other impulse that forces an esthetic direction, for they involve attitudes about materialism, about systems, and about people.

Landmarks are signifiers that give direction and interpret history. There can be no landmarks without human response. This exhibition was skillfully organized to ask questions, to challenge assumptions, to investigate the value of tradition, and to introduce new preoccupations in the short and long history of environmental art. For culture and nature to be faced squarely in art, both must persist, and this conviction was supported in all of the work represented. But ultimately the most compelling proposals conveyed that a site is not simply a location but a threshold.

Patricia C. Phillips