“Landscape Reclaimed”

“Landscape Reclaimed,” a consistently smart show comprising the responses of twenty conceptual artists to “landscape” and curated by Harry Philbrick, took full advantage of its site: a museum surrounded by aging, underappreciated Minimalist sculpture and sweeping suburban lawns generously punctuated with Dole/Kemp signs—in short, a site just waiting for Komar & Melamid to stage a local version of their America’s Most Wanted, 1994–. And that’s just what happened. Of the twenty artists represented in this show, it was the Soviet-born duo that engaged the community most directly with their sublimely ironic tribute to participatory democracy, Ridgefield’s Most Wanted, 1996. Its contents entirely determined by a New England town meeting, this large mural hung on a convex surface (to create the effect of being surrounded by Ridgefield). It featured a giant Hudson River School oak tree in the center; a dead dog (lots of tragedy in Ridgefield); a Cézanne Mont Saint-Victoire knockoff; a young female Ridgefield resident having sex with the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails (woman on top, per her request); Scratch ’n’ Sniff stickers with sickly sweet smells (meant to cover the sex scenes when schoolchildren visited the museum); Kandinsky-inspired abstraction; the Ridgefield Congregational Church; and a surveillance camera (added by the artists because they felt Ridgefield is a “very safe” community). In the videotape, Melamid puts to rest any notion that they seek to create public art: “We ask [the] public to work for us.”

Other artists also stretched the concept of landscape while respecting the parameters of the picture plane. David Diao’s beautifully glib Plots Available, 1996, depicted a site plan of Green River Cemetery, Long Island’s version of Père Lachaise, which houses the remains of nearly every New York School painter. Beverly Semmes reached back even further into art history’s canon with Figure in the Purple Velvet Bathrobe and Cloud Hat on the Beach, 1991, a play on the use of windswept seascapes to evoke Victorian-era anguish. Semmes’ performance stills were well paired with Sowon Kwon’s close-cropped, claustrophic work Interior Schemes, 1996: resplendent, mass-produced images of verdant pillowcases, slipcovers, and wallpaper.

Generally, the more successful contributions to “Landscape Reclaimed” found ways to rethink the genre, while the less interesting pieces desperately inscribed themselves in it. Among the former, I would include Gregory Greene’s commentary on the militia that populate the American backwater (WCBS, Radio Caroline, The Voice of the New Free State of Caroline #3, 1996) and his fully functional rocket Big Bertha, 1996, located in the museum’s sculpture garden. Nancy Dwyer’s site-specific furniture piece Window Seat (The Window Always Wins), 1996, situated near a picture window, raised the question of what museum visitors would rather look at, contemporary art or the beautifully framed landscape of Ridgefield. By contrast, works like Mira Schor’s homage to the semiotic code, Landscape, 1995, a painting that spells out the word “landscape” twice in leafy-looking fonts; Veronica Ryan’s The Repository, 1996, in which the artist set up her studio inside the museum and asked visitors to consider it a landscape; or Nam June Paik’s video-sculpture 9 Up Bush, 1996, were less than inspired. Even Peter Schuyff’s landscape-colored abstract pretzels superimposed on found landscape paintings seemed tired nearly forty years after Asger Jorn’s paintings based on the Situationist notion of détournement. The only limits these projects tested were those of the viewer’s patience.

A standout installation by Dawn Dedeaux quietly suggested these artists needn’t have tried so hard to reclaim landscape. Her Postcards to Teddy Roosevelt while Thinking of Yves Klein, 1996, included two television monitors resting face-up, muffled by translucent wax paper-one showing a deer carcass alongside a local highway, the other sheep grazing near an electrical fence—so that suddenly the sounds of buzzing flies, passing traffic, cowbells, and snapping power lines seemed haunting. Six photocollages lined the gallery walls depicting repetitive industrial scapes of satellite dishes and chain-link fences through which viewers could only catch glimpses of brutally strip-mined or otherwise neglected land forms. Their formal beauty as pictures, as landscapes, only added to the installation’s visceral effect. Who would ever suspect that working through, as opposed to reworking, the traditional genre of landscape would have produced the show’s most powerful—and nuanced—work?

Ernest Pascucci