Hysterical Pastoral

at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, through August 17

Rough Topography

at Vedanta, through August 16

Mixer 03

at Monique Meloche, through August 30

Most nature-oriented art today seems to assume that wilderness no longer exists, that every part of the world has been framed and named, that humans are in control. It takes materials from nature and, like the work in these three group shows, presents them in terms of their possible human uses, or as tenuous and contingent presences, or even as weird anomalies. Such presentations, whose subtext denies nature an autonomous existence independent of humans, have always bothered me, because I know from solo wilderness trips canoeing and kayaking and hiking alone in northern Canada how amazing it can be to live in an unaltered landscape–experiencing an almost unimaginable vastness and observing the interdependencies of plants, rock, and soil–and how utterly different living in wilderness is from life in a city or even in a rural area. Still, many of these pieces succeed in making often wry, yet sadly acute comments on how alienated we are from the natural world.

In the “Hysterical Pastoral” show at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, nature and references to it are character-ized by a strange, often humorous displacement. Dan Attoe sets up tents in the gallery for three works he calls Tent; their curved forms evoke the curves of a landscape, making them seem weirdly out of place but reminding us how removed our urban world is from nature. Amy Hauber includes real plants in Ovaries and Advanced Degrees, which she says concerns, among other things, “beauty, feminity, desire”; an accompanying book on the therapeutic uses of “artificial sunlight” and a sign that repeats the phrase “grow or die” also suggest an interest in human self-improvement.

One critic identified James Ireland’s subject as the “fracturing of illusion,” and in his All of My Dreams in the “Rough Topography” show at Vedanta, a kitschy photo of a spectacular sunset over land and water is divided across the middle by a fluorescent light, rendering the lower part of the scene almost invisible. Here nature can’t hold a candle to our industrial culture–though this work, like others in all three shows, contains a hint of a quixotic nostalgia for the real thing, in the form of a tiny twig in front of the fluorescent tube. At once referencing a dead tree and a growing plant, the twig suggests that Ireland, unlike an orthodox postmodernist, doesn’t see reality as merely different forms of representation: this twig, with its organic, three-dimensional gnarls and twists, asserts its priority over the landscape photo–though it’s still a small, dead thing.

In the bird-themed “Mixer 03” show at Monique Meloche, asianpunkboy’s Untitled 4 (Owl) includes a plastic owl hanging upside down from a shelf, with cubic-zirconia stones for eyes–another comment on nature as kitsch. But atop the shelf are two ceramic bowls, one containing birdseed, the other water: these natural substances imply a preference for the real and, like the milk and cookies kids leave for Santa, suggest an absurdly optimistic hope that the owl will come to life or that some real bird will stop by to drink and dine. In Cindy Loehr’s installation In Memory of, Songs for Birds, an enormous vine rises from a pot on a table and snakes over virtually a whole wall, framing two photos of birds–two of 10,000 images taken by Loehr’s grandfather. Though the vine itself is irregular and organic, it’s arranged rather symmetrically.

Three pieces by Nicholas Frank in “Hysterical Pastoral” eloquently articulate the tension between the real and its representation that underlies much of the work in these shows. Extended Twigs (Figs. 1-41) has 41 twigs mounted in a line on the wall and protruding from it horizontally. While referencing the geometrical arrangements of minimal art, it uses the irregular shapes of the twigs to argue against minimalist ideas of perfection. Frank’s other two pieces, Rocks in Their Natural Setting and Logs in Their Natural Setting, are ironically titled. Each consists of tiny photographs of rocks or logs cut in the shapes of those objects. At first I thought Rocks in Their Natural Setting consisted of flat shavings of actual rocks, and the logs really do look like tiny logs. Removed not only from their natural setting but from the rectangular shape of a photograph in which objects are depicted in their surroundings, they become telling commentaries on the isolating consequences of any collector’s impulse. The tininess of these images, each around an inch or less, further removes the depicted objects from the realm of the actual. The divided sensibility these works express–elegant and accurate enough to be momentarily mistaken for real things, they show us how our fetishization of objects separates them from the world that gave them life–underlies much of the best postpomo art, recovering some sense of reality even as it critiques naive, illusionistic representation.

Artists tend to present what they know, and few have ventured out of our industrialized environment–to which guided nature tours and automobile camping with day hikes are arguably still tethered. Among the several dozen works in the three exhibits I found only one that summoned up any of the profound loss of self in the face of the natural that I felt every day in the wilderness: Anna Shteynshleyger’s untitled photo from her “Siberia Series” at Vedanta. Not surprisingly, it was made by an artist who actually spent time outdoors. Her artist’s statement refers to Siberia’s history as a penal colony (she emigrated from Moscow when she was 15), but she also writes of her interest in “vastness as liberation” and “the notion of the sublime which European painters traditionally observed in the landscape.” In contrast to countless landscape photos that reduce nature to static pretty pictures–the kind of readily consumable image that so many look for in art and that Frank’s works mock–the structure of this suggests some of the complex truths of an actual wild landscape.

The work has the viewer looking down on a pond from above, though not from the superiority of a bird’s-eye position–nearby hills are higher than the picture’s vantage point. We stand on a steep slope that rises from the shore, and we understand and, more important, feel that the pond depends on the water that flows down to it from the surrounding land. The pond trails off into a narrow arm at the right, which seems to be an outlet stream. But the eye is also led into the left background, to a few patches of water, possibly the stream’s path, and to a low point where the downslopes of two hills meet. The multiple directions in which the eye is led by the composition–down the foreground slope to the pond, toward its outlet, then into the distance–suggest the natural course of water on its journey to the sea.