Beneath the falling ginkgo tree leaves, peer through the keyhole, a warm house with an open door in the mountains awaits. Greg Ito’s painting Let Yourself In is an invitation to unlock nature as home. But a close observer may notice an ominous plume of smoke, perhaps from a forest fire, rising in the distant mountains and obstructing the crescent moon, a likely allusion to the increased wildfires in the artist’s home state California.
In thinking about artists responding to The Natural World, one might wonder how these artists are addressing climate change. To paraphrase historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, to consider the human condition in relation to the threat of global warming and mass extinction, the contradictory scales of deep biological and geological histories, and also an individual human’s timeline, must be balanced. When thinking about climate change, the individual’s navigation of their “own phenomenological and everyday experience of life, death, and the world—experience that takes for granted a ‘world’ that today, ironically, no longer presents itself as simply given” must also be considered. (1) Stabilizing these rifts in perceived time must occur simultaneously and constantly—contemporaneously. As such, climate change is a historical condition that permeates all contemporary art. (2) At the same time, none of the work in this exhibition directly addresses climate change: although the artists included in The Natural World created this work while all are living and breathing amidst this crisis to varied degrees, they also depict the environment with devoted attention to detail and all of the planet’s possibilities, guiding a viewer through distinct moments and explorations beyond the subject matter.
In this two part group show with work spanning from 1959 to 2022, attitudes and approaches to The Natural World range from studies of subject matter, line, color, and form, to meditations on symbolism, history, and projection. Where Part I laid the groundwork for rich context, Part II presented a forecast of the delights one may find in nature. In celebrating and immortalizing the real, artificial, and imagined environment, the artists in this group show remind a viewer to pause and enjoy the pleasures of nature, perhaps even in protest to argue for access to the finer things in life. As the decade-old protest goes, we argue for “Bread, and roses too!” (3)
Drawing such inspiration from nature, some artists are compelled to record The Natural World with detailed attention to the subject matter. Diligent notetakers of form across generations include Vija Celmins, David Hockney, and Anna Valdez. Celmins has tenaciously explored the surface of the ocean by taking photographs of the sea and articulating each crest and valley with sharp attention to detail. Similarly motivated to render shifting, fleeting scenes in nature, Hockney explored how light is displaced in the water of a single pool in his Paper Pulp Pools series. In speaking about his fascination, Hockney stated: “The point about water is you can look at it in so many different ways; it’s always different; you can choose what to look at, you can say, your eyes will stop here or there.” (4) Also driven to document distinct moments within an often fixed environment, Valdez captures fluctuating arrangements in her studio as her living plants and homegrown flowers evolve. Elaborating on her 2022 painting Studio Subjects with Island Landscape, Valdez stated: “I am always arranging, rearranging, and recirculating objects. I chose to use a personal travelogue element in this painting, a sketch from my trip to the Galapagos Islands. The landscape is neither painting nor window, or perhaps both. The surrounding shells, plants, and coral are curated elements I have chosen to highlight in the studio space that are elements that you might see inside the Galapagos Islands landscape.”
Speaking about painting landscapes, Alex Katz stated: “Oh, it’s art, it’s art, it’s not nature. I think nature’s just a vehicle for art.” (5) For Katz, nature acts as a means to consider form. Artists in Part II who also employ everything available in service of their art are Guy Yanai and Mauro Bonacina. Discussing his two 2022 paintings included in this show, Yanai stated: “This ecosystem is now one of so many easily accessible images that are available to work with. Both of these images are quite distant from my surroundings, and this kind of ‘nostalgia for the never experienced’ really excites me.” Online, one can excavate the optics of The Natural World with few barriers to visual entry. Also discussing his interest in digital imagery, Bonacina stated: “In my lifetime, I’ve seen the digestion and consumption of images change completely. I am a complete image addict.” Bonacina mines images online from a broad array of sources, digitally manipulates them, and ultimately prints and paints a distinct new final interpretation.
Landscape painting historically often appointed imagined elements to complete the composition; however, contemporary artists—such as George Condo, Freya Douglas-Morris, Cara Nahaul, and Ross Taylor—push their imaginations further to construct wholly unreal scenes. In Condo’s 1994 painting The Egg Man, planks topped with broken egg shells and sprouting chicken leg-like branches emerge in this fanciful landscape. While the elements in Douglas-Morris’s work are not as hallucinatory as Condo’s surreal landscapes, discussing the space built by blocks of bold color in her 2022 painting Night Sail, Douglas-Morris stated: “The colors resonate against each other. I wanted to leave these areas as if they were a patchwork, so that the viewer can mentally fill in the zones of color—where these hills are, what might be growing on them, where they lead. The pathway through the forefront hillside is equally ambiguous, leading to nowhere specifically; it could be a pathway or it could be a stream.” Nahaul also paints vast swathes of simple forms which oscillate between flat shapes and deep outdoor space. Distilling the forms of the landscape, Nahaul stated: “I want the paintings to shift between something fictive and real, to allude to a personal undercurrent that quietly reverberates throughout each work. I use landscapes to invite viewers to imagine how they might mine, reconstruct, and reflect upon their own personal histories, and what can be learned from them.” Meanwhile, fracturing the landscape in gestural, sometimes transparent, washes of color, Taylor weaves portions of various perspectives to compose the environment in his paintings. Indeed, the artist stated: “I’m interested in memory as a strong component… How we recall an experience of landscape, through shards of disjointed, fractured pieces of information… How then to reinterpret that onto the canvas to create a more wholesome, dynamic experience for the viewer.” (6)
Artists Ellsworth Kelly, Madeleine Bialke, and Nicasio Fernandez progress the psychological interpretations of The Natural World. Included in Part I, Kelly’s 1984 Tulip is emblematic of his lifelong series of line drawings of flowers. Dutifully delineating each unique curve and intersection, Kelly produced individual portraits of each specific flower. In a 2012 interview with the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator, Marla Prather, Kelly asserts that his drawings are “portraits of flowers, not anonymous.” (7) Personifying nature in a different manner, Madeleine Bialke stated: “In terms of how I approach The Natural World, one of my aims is to anthropomorphize the landscape around me to stress the interconnectedness of our lives with those of the earth’s flora and fauna. In this way, the trees gain personalities and narratives, and share our concerns, both for themselves and ourselves. I use fleshy colors and voluminous shapes to give them bodily recognition and vulnerability, blurring the distinction between human and nature.” In a shift to considering depictions of flowers and trees as portraits more literally, Nicasio Fernandez invents worlds in which inhuman elements of nature may present consciousness depicted by expressive eyes. Further, in speaking about his 2022 painting Open Their Petals And Turn To The Light, the artist stated: “The flower’s attention, much like the figure’s, is engulfed in the cool glow of the moon’s light.” With his playful approach to figures and personified objects, Fernandez presents a reminder to consider nature’s gifts through the lens of a flower, moonlight, and personified tree.
A friction between attractive natural elements and aggressive structures or histories exists in the works by Brittney Leeanne Williams and William Kentridge in this exhibition. Considering the “fences, bars, and guard rails” emerging in her recent work such as her 2022 Guarded: Red Arch, Williams stated: “A fortress of protection emerged. But these protective armatures are often adorned and beautified by natural elements.” While at first these fences, bars, and guard rails may act as a barrier to entry, a viewer may gently gaze around the bars to see similarly structured trees; in front of them, verdant glowing grass; and beyond them, a mountain range. Inverting this sequence of access to the depicted landscape, Kentridge’s 2018 Drawing for The Head & The Load (Landscape with Waterfall) features a welcoming landscape marked by a wide waterfall and tropical trees. But look more closely, and historical atrocities appear. Text laid over the image reads phrases referring to specific “REBELLIONS” and “REVOLTS”, persistent human suffering of hunger and tiredness, and a splintered ode to “THE GRAVES THAT WE / RE NOT MARKED”.
Additional tensions surface in the contradictory symbols included in the works of James Rosenquist, Emma Webster, and Sholto Blissett. Speaking about his ideas behind his Welcome to the Water Planet series, James Rosenquist stated: “It was an idea of people putting to bed, or putting under their pillow, the fear of the atomic holocaust, a nuclear war. So the idea, the division of the ideas in this series of paintings, came from early settlers in America hiding in lakes or streams while a forest fire went by.” Thinking about burying fear in a body of water, Rosenquist further explores this friction symbolically: “The new thing is thinking that flowers are pretty, are colorful, and maybe they are, but maybe they aren’t and also the fragments of ladies’ faces can be sweet or they can be demons.” (8) His 1989 collage Source for Incarnation Incantation features thin, sharp cuttings of a woman’s face from a magazine taped over an image of white and red orchids. The slivers of bright blue and green eyes and a smiling mouth survey a viewer and may eerily go unnoticed until close inspection.
Similarly destabilizing idealistic interpretations of nature, Emma Webster employs artificial natural light crafted in virtual reality to theatrically light her sets of nature, inspired by J.M.W. Turner and Claude Lorrain. Speaking about her 2021 caliginous painting Dusk Till Dawn, she described the “light shift like a climatic turning point” as a “subversion of the picturesque sunset into something frightening when we realize the stakes are high. Taking in the last light, and panic-remembering to get a flashlight before you’re caught in the dark fumbling.” If one were to get sucked into the beauty of the dimming sky lights without preparing shelter, one may not survive the night. Similarly, if we don’t forecast and prepare for climate change and take preventative measures, we may not survive what comes next.
Also inspired by Lorrain and Turner, Sholto Blissett’s Garden of Hubris XXVIII depicts what the artist calls, “a visual narrative of the history of art itself, and the traditional ‘western’ conceptions of nature which this history has engendered. It is also a prompt as to what we need to think and do now: in both art, and environment.” Beholding the looming mountain range in the background, a viewer is reminded to recognize what humans can and cannot change in nature. These works prompt a viewer to consider that while humans may modify The Natural World, nature can never be dominated; nature prevails.
(1) Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, University of Chicago Press, 2021.
(3) Rebecca Solnit, “Bread and Roses,” Orwell’s Roses, Viking, 2021.
(4) David Hockney, David Hockney: Paper Pools, Harry N. Abrams. Inc., Publishers, New York, 1980, p. 48.
(6) Ross Taylor, (Artist profile interview) Making Paradise, Aga Khan, London, 2021.