New York

Mary Lucier

Greenberg Wilson Gallery

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Mary Lucier’s three-channel video installation Wilderness, 1986, is that it implies beauty and cliché through the same set of images. Lucier demonstrates how the popular assumption that the two are intrinsically antithetical is not necessarily true. Wilderness consists of a row of seven monitors mounted variously on faux classical pedestals, tree trunks, and a fluted urn. Lucier has arranged these in descending order, from the highest on the ends to the lowest in the middle; she has also mounted all but the urn, the center element, on low risers as well. The monitors play back three 21-minute, synchronized videotapes in an A/B/A/B/C/B/C pattern. The tapes feature a succession of forests, streams, seascapes, early American interiors, and a fox hunt, and are punctuated with glimpses of trains, bulldozers, and factories. Each scene features only minimal camera movement, if any; the pacing is slow, but never boring. Many of the transitions between scenes are marked with a reverential fade to white. Often Lucier mattes the landscape in gray, zooms out, then keys in 19th-century picture frames around the borders. Industrial scenes are usually first shown inset into other pictures, before gradually filling the screen. The vaguely New Age-ish soundtrack, a combination of ambient noise and synthesizer music, is a slight drawback, but the program is technically superb, and it creates a quiet, meditative mood.

No words intrude upon the world Lucier creates, nor can the slightest trace of kitsch be found anywhere. The artist has ostensibly offered nothing but pure imagery; her vision is hushed and stoic. Lucier intends Wilderness to evoke the landscapes of both the Hudson River School and the Luminists. If these allusions don’t necessarily spring to mind while watching the program, they nonetheless make sense in retrospect. What’s really at stake, it seems, is a reconception of humankind vis-à-vis nature, one that differs significantly from the Romantic notion of the sublime. If humanity is part of nature, distinguished only by consciousness, then nature, conversely, can only be known as a human idea. Seen in this light, technological development is properly an extension of natural history. In Wilderness, neither the flashes of modern industrial scenes nor the nested framing devices (exhibition space/riser/pedestal/monitor/picture frame) are particularly disruptive; rather, they complete the whole. Whether the artist intended this or not is, as always, beside the point. Lucier says she conceived of her piece as “an ironic dialogue between past and present, mundane and poetic, real and ideal.” Seen dialectically, however, Wilderness is not in the least ironic.

John Miller