“Landscape as Metaphor”

“Landscape as Metaphor: Visions of America in the Late Twentieth Century” was an exhibition filled with sound-the drip of melting ice, the incessant hiss of white noise, the creaking of branches. And there were smells, too, of prairie grasses, cedar, and humid, packed earth. In scale, the installations (an entire gallery-sized space was allotted to each artist) echoed 19th-century American landscape paintings in which the vast territories depicted were meant to fill the viewer with humility. Today’s descendants have moved light years away from the expeditionary optimism of those panoramas. Every work in this exhibition was ambiguous and inquisitive, as if it were striving to grasp what remains lost or elusive.

Mark Tansey’s Water Lillies (all works 1994), an aquamarine homage to Monet’s immense paintings, included an inverted image of the old Impressionist turning a wheel near a bursting sluice above a reflection of a billowing cloud breaking up in the water—a bomb in the Garden of Eden. Richard Misrach’s photographs of the Bonneville Salt Flats recalled William Henry Jackson’s images of still skies and sleek waters except for the searing scars made by racing cars across the bleached surface. The stretched titles of Edward Ruscha’s skinny wall-wide paintings, Scrubscratch, Land, and Sand looked like lashes against dark horizons, evoking 19th-century engravings of industrial cities choking under clouds of black smoke.

In Tahquitz, Lewis de Soto’s silent videos of California’s San Jacinto Mountains gleamed like eyes in a cavern—quietly undermining the images of those mountains imprinted in our minds by Albert Bierstadr’s grandiloquent paintings of the Golden West—while between them blocks of ice slowly melted. The disruption of virgin territories was made palpable by Mel Chin’s Spirit. One of the most concise works on view here, it was also one of the most startling and ominous. In a room reconstructed with inward-tilting walls, a huge cask was slung on a meager rope woven of grasses. The swollen barrel became a metaphor for the sheer tonnage of oil, gunpowder, grain, and alcohol that fueled the Westward Movement.

Other works strained against confinement as if internal forces pressed them outward. Judy Pfaff constructed a submarine world of tendrils and cords that trailed vertiginously toward a ceiling whose panels had been removed to admit a blue light. Meg Webster’s 13-ton earthen cone was tall, elegant, and silent; Ursula von Rydingsvard’s staggering fleet of rough-hewn “spirit boats,” receded into space like a crusty mountain range. Finally, Martin Puryear’s upside-down tree hung like a flayed carcass within a great wooden gateway—or, perhaps, the crippled offspring of Alison Saar’s monumental male and female, whose limbs became branching tree roots, transforming the couple into archetypal forest deities.

The awesome and the sublime were interiorized in the spectral effects of Bill Viola’s video installation Pneuma, a floating world of family images metamorphosing into luminous mists and veils of trees, as well as in the eerie silence of James Turrell’s dark room with its pure and sourceless blue light. Countering the evanescence of these optical phenomena, Matt Mullican’s immense wooden model for a visionary city built, as if in innocence and simplicity, of a set of colossal blocks was a perfect paradox.

“Landscape as Metaphor” went beyond environmentalist mudslinging or facile sentimentalizing about paradise lost. All of these works reflected our deep roots in the natural world and the spiritual vulnerability the neglect and abuse of it produce.

Joan Seeman Robinson