New York

Michael Ashkin

Andrea Rosen Gallery

For a number of years Michael Ashkin has been producing tabletop tableaux that depict distinctive aspects of the contemporary American landscape: nearly barren postindustrial sites, stretches of desolate highway, and other fringe areas. These precise dioramas comprise terrains fashioned from plaster, cement, dirt, salt, and other substances, and bodies of water of poured Envirotex, a resinlike liquid that hardens to a slightly translucent coat. The occasional car, power line, and spigot might be purchased from hobby shops, and everything is constructed to exacting scale. Ashkin’s style has become far more spare in the works recently on view, as have his titles: the lyrical, narrative allusion of 1993’s Far North, over Uncharted Shallows, He Began a Slow, Peaceful Descent, for example, has been replaced by the simplicity of numbers. Ashkin’s use of this convention is a sign of his turn toward the concerns of postwar painting. In these works, the miniaturist’s detail is eschewed in favor of allover composition and an interest in surface textures and effects that is especially evident in the waxy, pigment-laden Envirotex seas.

Ashkin’s new focus on surface is superimposed on an abiding interest in the landscape, in particular those places where “entropy has set in and nature is taking over.” The invocation of entropy refers his work to Land art, which accepted decay as a fundamental aspect of its process. Yet Ashkin dramatically recasts one of the dominant tropes used to describe Robert Smithson’s or Michael Heizer’s monumental projects: the sublime. His bubbling skeins of toxic waste might be seen as the man-made equivalent of the awe-inspiring natural features—gorges, mountain peaks, and the like—that we associate with the Romantics, but Ashkin has learned from Land artists that the sublime has little to do with hoary clichés and everything to do with scale. If Spiral Jetty, 1970, invokes the sublime by employing inconceivable disjuncture between the scale of the piece and the perception of the viewer, Ashkin uses the technique and scale of the model maker to freeze the entropic and place his depictions in an entirely different tradition: the picturesque.

The picturesque transforms land conceptually and aesthetically into landscape, visually comprehensible and clearly under the sway of human systems. Ashkin admits that this element of control is a deliberate aspect of his tableaux, saying that he wants “the work to feel like a fragment of a grid—a chunk of land that’s overall the same.” The grid, a crucial structuring principle of painting in this century, represents the supreme imposition of form on nature, making perception in these dioramas tantamount to possession. And the bird’s-eye elevation we have in Ashkin’s work is a particularly modern form of perception, the totalizing perspective of the client surveying an architectural model, or the topographic view from the satellite.

While Ashkin’s transcription of theoretical and aesthetic systems is undeniably clever, his aestheticization of these ruined patches of land is perhaps more problematic. The artist has said that he considers these landscapes to be beautiful, and we may well ask, paraphrasing Walter Benjamin, what does it mean that we can experience our own destructiveness as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order?

Andrew Perchuk