Lay of the land
Landscape art, like the land itself, is changing. The traveling Altered Landscape collection at the Nevada Museum of Art shows how.
The landscape is our playground—except when it’s our battleground. Or maybe it’s our access point to spirituality. Or to recreation. Or natural resources. Ultimately, whatever we discover in the natural world depends a lot on what we’re looking for.
As Americans’ relationship with the landscape has changed over the last few centuries, artists have been documenting our shifting viewpoints.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, when Paradise supposedly awaited just over the next craggy ridge, landscape painters preferred vignettes of majestic, sun-ray-drenched mountains softened with a hazy, purple glow.
That romantic view of the American landscape was complex enough to begin with, but by the 1970s, our view of the land was even more complicated. Our mountains, rivers and plains had been mined, managed, bombed, paved, “landscaped” or otherwise touched by humans. Artists, particularly photographers, kept up with the changes.
In 1975, the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., hosted an exhibit that showed the focus of landscape art had shifted definitively. The exhibit, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, showed that artists had been taking a more critical perspective. The purple mountains had taken a backseat to images of suburban development, nuclear test sites, open-pit mines and other marks of human presence. The term “New Topographics” came to describe a whole genre of photographs.
In 1993, the Nevada Museum of Art started collecting them. Art collector Peter Pool worked with then-board-member Peter Goin to seek out photographs of the altered landscape.
Goin, a University of Nevada, Reno art professor who’s published several books of photos of scarred landscapes, notes that even though artists had been addressing the subject for a few decades, curators and publishers had been slower to embrace the growing field.
The museum saw the discrepancy as an opportunity to establish a pioneering collection.
Arts patron Carol Franc Buck, whose philanthropic foundation in Incline Village focuses on funding music programs, particularly opera, provided the endowment for the growing collection.
“It was a nice opportunity, so I jumped in,” says Buck, a longtime fan of Edward Hopper’s stark paintings of lonely urban spaces. “I love landscape. I love the idea of showing the change. It’s terribly important that you show there was a five-and-dime there, not always a skyscraper.”
The museum has been seeking out and purchasing photographs ever since. The Altered Landscape: The Carol Franc Buck Foundation now numbers more than 600 images, and the collection continues to grow each year. The collection is a series of photographic documents that keeps up with changing ideas about how we use the land. It chronicles a range of perspectives, usually including a mix of reverence and criticism.
Changing selections of the photographs are rotated in their own second-floor gallery at the NMA, and different groupings travel to other venues. Exhibits culled from the collection are regularly shown in small towns in Nevada and have been as far as New Zealand and Norway.
“It is one of the only truly focused photography collections in the nation, which has allowed the NMA to become known for this specific niche,” says NMA curator Ann Wolfe. A Google search for “altered landscape photographs collection” yields an entire page of links to the NMA.
The museum has become a primary resource for New Topographics photography.
“Photographs from the collection are always available for curators to borrow,” says Wolfe, who first came to know the collection while she was a student in Los Angeles. She says the collection is still available to visiting scholars and art history researchers.
The Altered Landscape Collection’s 600-odd photographs don’t all fit in the NMA’s Altered Landscapes Gallery that’s dedicated to their display.
“Photography exhibitions need to be rotated more frequently than, say, painting exhibitions because of conservation issues,” Wolfe points out. “You can’t expose them to light for extensive periods of time, which allows us to rotate new photographs into the galleries on a regular basis and also allows for a variety of themes to be featured.”
The photos are arranged in modest-sized groupings. Sometimes there’s an exhibit of work by one artist, such as last year’s show of Darius Kuzmickas’ dark pinhole photographs of nearby deserts. Sometimes, a grouping illustrates a particular point or presents a juxtaposition that invites an open-ended line of questioning.
The current iteration features 16 pieces that illustrate two themes, “Water in the West” and “Military and Mining Presence.”
In some of these photographs, artists have made beautiful images using the ominous marks of environmental degradation as lines and shapes, using the camera’s power to edit and beautify to make a visual invitation to think about how the land is used. These include graphically appealing, historically weighted, black-and-white images by well-known artists, such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and Peter Goin.
Documenting changes over time is a popular approach among the New Topographics artists. The exhibit includes a classic example: Arizona photographer Mark Klett’s 1979 reshoot of Timothy O’Sullivan’s 1867 photo of Pyramid Lake, part of his extensive “Rephotographic Survey Project.” After 112 years, the lake’s precarious looking rock formations remained more or less the same, but the shoreline receded dramatically.
Across the gallery is a different kind of conceptual image, Fandra Chang’s large, panoramic color photo of a series of mirrors reflecting the ground and the sky, upside down. It looks something like a photo of an abstract painting.
The exhibits can serve as entry points into topics such as climate change, urban planning and the politics of water usage. Wolfe says future themes to be featured in the gallery may focus on the West’s nuclear legacy or the built environment.
The ever-changing, ever-traveling Altered Landscape collection keeps demonstrating that the landscape means different things to different people. But, of course, there’s no forgetting the legacy of those majestic, 19th-century oil paintings. The museum still actively collects those, too. A few of them are on display in the next room over, the Ina Mae and Raymond Rude Sierra Nevada Great Basin Gallery.