The new landscape
Center for Art + Environment looks at human and Earth interactions
Mention the phrase “landscape art” and what’s likely to come to mind are idyllic scenes of gurgling streams, swaying trees, big blue skies with cottonball clouds, sagebrush-swept canyons, maybe a cow munching peacefully on green grass. Now plop an easy chair in the middle of one of those peaceful scenes. Or litter the desert floor with military detritus or tract housing. Is that landscape art?
The Nevada Museum of Art says it is, or more specifically, that it is part of “The Altered Landscape,” the title of a program that examines the interactions of people and Western environments, be they natural, virtual or built. The program has taken a step further with the opening in January of the Center for Art + Environment. And while images have long spurred action, that’s not necessarily NMA’s intention.
“It’s not our job to say what’s good or bad about the environment,” says William Fox, director of the Center for Art + Environment. It’s the museum’s job, he says, to put these images before people. “Museums play a critical role in how we understand our world.”
This is shown with full force in the museum’s current exhibit Looking Forward, Looking Back. It begins with what’s traditionally known as landscape art—tree etchings, paintings and photographs of mountains, parks, flowers, desert and water, all celebrating the beauty of nature. Then it shifts, particularly as the work becomes more contemporary. Manmade items slowly interrupt the landscape until the final pieces are striking images of man’s mark on nature: A golden eagle curves dramatically above a New Mexico uranium mine in one photo. Contaminated radioactive sediment adds a green tint to a snowy, dreamlike landscape in another. A painting shows a mountain, gouged with the effects of strip mines, bleeding a red river.
“You see idealized notions before industrialization basically turned the environment into an artifact,” says Fox of the exhibit’s flow.
While these images are exercises in form, color, light, shadow, it’s difficult to view them with detachment. The artists were inspired by nature’s beauty as well as its destruction and the intersections of those extremes.
Environmental subjects are the focal point for the majority of exhibits now showing at the museum. Katie Holten grapples with global warming and coastal water contamination with her carbon footprint and dead tree installations. Grass and Sky makes visitors feel like they’re walking through a meadow due to intricate paintings by Karen Kitchel of wispy grasses lining the walls. And Jennifer Steincamp’s playful computer animated tree is a cheerful vision of nature’s cycles.
An upcoming exhibit is Chinatown by Lucy Raven, which takes a video journey from a copper open pit mine in Nevada to a smelter on the China’s Yangtze River. Along a similar vein is the Trans-Alaska Pipeline exhibit currently on view. It traces the pipeline along its 800-mile route. More educational than artistic in its current form, Fox says other artists will be able to use its images to create works inspired by it.
“If you want help understanding the world,” says Fox, “it doesn’t hurt to look at its art.”