The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment
“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Teddy Roosevelt famously said. He was referring to foreign policy, but it’s not difficult to imagine this father of our national parks and forests applying that same philosophy to the conservation movement he championed. Today, with conservation a more pressing topic than ever, those on the movement’s front lines have a similar sentiment.
“My photographs are very quiet,” says artist and activist Subhankar Banerjee, “yet my works are very loud.”
One of roughly 100 artists in Nevada Museum of Art’s signature exhibition The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment, Banerjee’s words echo throughout the spacious third floor gallery. While curator Ann Wolfe is quick to point out that these works have not been assembled for the purpose of environmental activism, it’s hard to miss the long shadow cast by such a powerful set of images.
The museum’s Altered Landscape collection is built upon a core group of works by artists who have come to be known as the New Topographics. Quite apart from Modernist photographers like Ansel Adams who idealized the natural landscape (and is also represented in the collection), artists like Henry Wessel and Robert Adams began around the 1970s photographing man-made structures with a striking directness. No more was nature to be romanticized. The human impact on the environment would be on full display, for better or worse.
This drives the museum’s collection. Whether the landscapes appear fragile or sublime, transformed or unflappable, the individual and aggregate effects of humanity on the world we inhabit are unavoidable. Not all the artists here consider themselves activists like Banerjee, but the power of their work carries a humbling weight.
Human intervention in the landscape runs the gamut in this exhibition from homes to dams to nuclear testing, massive mining projects, and even artists who transform the land for their own work. Fandra Chang’s “End of Horizons” illustrates the mind-bending symmetries of an infinite suburbia, digitally stitched together and unsettlingly feasible. The work of outdoor artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude is documented here, as well as Robert Smithson and Andy Goldsworthy, altering and accentuating the contours of the Earth. Michael Light presents images of a Utah gold mine with a detachment that allows the stepped, open pit to take on a seductive, dizzying beauty.
Humor comes into play as well, with works like J. Bennett Fitts’ sad “Line of Trees” against a business park wall, and a pair of prints featuring Lay-Z-Boy recliners abandoned in the middle of two nowheres. Even Sharon Stewart’s “Staging Area for Assembled U.S. Nuclear Warheads,” in one sense deadly serious, gives a dark Dr. Strangelove-style wink with the conclusion, “The purpose of building all these is not to use them.”
Some of this work has cycled through the museum’s Altered Landscape Gallery in the past, but it’s rare to see so much of it on such prominent display. The museum is proud of what they’ve managed to assemble. A few years ago, when budgets were being slashed the world over, and charitable giving took a dive, NMA decided to dig deeper to invest in this collection and its Center for Art + Environment.
“We might not collect 19th century Impressionist painting, but we don’t need that to be a world class institution,” says Wolfe.