Los Angeles

Margaret Nielsen

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

This retrospective of Margaret Nielsen’s work provided an overview of the myriad tactics and formats she has deployed to interrogate the tradition of American landscape painting, a genre little explored in hip artistic circles these days. Grappling with the legacy of 19th-century “masters” from spiritualists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Cole to the mystic Albert Pinkham Ryder, Nielsen lifts the sublime veil of Romanticism to reveal the imperialist, masculinist mentality of conquest that destroyed the landscape so lovingly idealized.

A series of Nielsen’s drawings from the ’70s address the incompatibility of the modes of representation deployed to render the landscape comprehensible to the viewer and its supposedly untouched “natural” state. Thus, in Untitled, 1973, Nielsen makes drawings of two snapshots in a photo album; the simulacral waterfall landscape of the first is in the process of being sucked into the vacuum cleaner in the second. Such pictures insist, in a rather obvious but still clever way, that, in representation, the “natural” and the “cultural” are collapsed into the same semiotic register.

The most coherent and dramatic series in Nielsen’s repertoire is a group of tiny panel paintings produced between the mid and late ’80s and rendered in jewel-colored densities of viscid paint. These works are eerie, mystical, Ryder-esque outdoor scenes transported into the realm of psychological portraiture: a swing hanging from nowhere suspended over a whirlpool-turned-roiling bed-of-snakes; a ring of fish that leaps in a perfect circle beneath a silver full moon; a canoe lit by flames from which writhing birds emerge floating on a brackish waterway. Hardly grandiose or pretending to sublime universality, these are landscapes transformed by a distinctly feminist vision: compact, sacred, personal, erethistic.

Nielsen’s recent works—grand-scale landscapes interrupted by inappropriate figures and juxtapositions-attack the sublime head on. In Sierra Nevada Morning, 1990, a dramatic landscape lit by shafts of light streaming from clearing clouds merges with the bourgeois scene of a white man standing before a roaring hearth over which the exact same painting is decorously hung; again, the landscape is exposed as inevitably mediated by the apparatus of civilization. In other pictures—such as Merced River, Yosemite Valley, 1991—women’s bodies (signifiers of nature in their ideal state but also of the fall from purity) serve to mark the landscape as always already acculturated. Here, a sepia-toned image (echoing the photographic landscape tradition) is thrown into relief by the ungainly presence in the foreground of the image of a young bride grimacing for a photographer and his box camera.

Ultimately, while (or perhaps because) these large deconstructive canvases are such aggressive critiques of the traditions of landscape painting and photography, they say a great deal about these traditions without offering possible alternatives. By contrast, Nielsen’s tiny panel paintings from the ’80s, which force the landscape to become precious, twisted, individualized, psychotic, offer an alternative “feminist” landscape genre. The closer Nielsen gets to mimicking the scale and pretensions of Bierstadt, the further she seems to get from herself.

Amelia Jones