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The exhibition included five new commissions including work from Vaughn Bell, Center for Land Use Interpretation, Joe Smolinski, Nina Katchadourian, and Mary Temple. Several artists contributed new works never before exhibited, including Alexis Rockman, Paul Jacobsen, and Jane D. Marsching and Mitchell Joachim/Terreform. Other artists featured are Robert Adams, Boyle Family, Melissa Brown, Leila Daw, Gregory Euclide, J. Henry Fair, Anthony Goicolea, Mike Glier, Marine Hugonnier, Jane D. Marsching and Mitchell Joachim/Terreform, Ed Ruscha, Yutaka Sone, and Jennifer Steinkamp.
The exhibition was accompanied by a color catalog published by MIT Press, which includes essays by Gregory Volk, Tensie Whelan, Ginger Strand, and exhibition curator Denise Markonish.
Reinterpreting traditional landscape
Some of the artists in the exhibition both developed and reinterpreted traditional genres of landscape depiction. Robert Adams helped found the genre referred to as “New Topographics,” which focuses on a non-idealized view of the American landscape. At first glance, his black and white images of Colorado immediately invite comparison to another Adams — Ansel, father of modern landscape photography — but Robert Adams takes a contrary approach, making small images of ordinary or even ugly landscapes seem sublime.
Ed Ruscha re-invented the traditional awe-inspiring landscape in his Country Cityscapes series in which he took calendar-like panoramas and cut away sections of the prints, filling the voids with text (phrases like “It’s payback time” and “You will eat hot lead”). Known for his ironic perspective on American vernacular imagery, Ruscha allows the landscape to talk back, this time with a stereotypical Wild West twang.
Paul Jacobsen and Alexis Rockman both tackled the formidable Hudson River School, a movement whose renderings of pristine unspoiled landscapes reinforced early ideas of America’s Manifest Destiny. Jacobsen and Rockman showed a new American future, one where our collective sins of the past come back to haunt us, depicting landslides taking over hillside homes or heaps of garbage spoiling a green pasture. Both artists created lushly painted works: Rockman, dealing with environmental decay, and Jacobsen, addressing human survival in a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Starting their career alongside the Fluxus and Earth Artists of the 1960s and ’70s, the Boyle Family is a team of husband and wife Mark Boyle and Joan Hills along with their two children Sebastian and Georgia. The Boyles’ series Journey to the Surface of the Earth were mixed-media painting assemblages that recreate in an extremely realistic manner different squares of terrain chosen by blindly throwing darts at a world map.
Continuing this nod to Earth art was Vaughn Bell’s Personal Biospheres, which gave gallery visitors their own miniature landscapes to experience by popping their head into Plexiglas domes filled with small working ecosystems. Bell’s custom biospheres for Badlands were based on the landscape of North Adams.
A micro and macro view of the landscape
Some of the artists ventured out into the world examining the landscape from both macro and micro viewpoints. Mike Glier’s project Latitude, Longitude, and Antipodes targeted specific locations on the globe to create a series of plein air improvisational paintings. For Latitude, Glier stayed in one place (his own backyard) for an extended period to paint the changes of season as the earth shifts on its axis; while for Longitude he traveled along the 70th meridian of longitude between the Arctic Circle and the Equator to paint the changing landscape. Gregory Euclide also explored his own backyard through a series of mixed-media constructions that combined delicately drawn bucolic landscapes that were crumpled like trash and combined with bits of the outdoors, such as dirt, branches, and fungus. Marine Hugonnier’s film trilogy, Ariana, The Last Tour, and Traveling Amazonia, dealt with the political and environmental regulation of landscape attractions. Ariana (2002) explored her inability to take 360° panoramic images of many of the most beautiful landscapes in modern Afghanistan.
Jane Marsching and Mitchell Joachim/Terreform traveled even further afield — and into the future — with Arctic Listening Post (2006-present), an inter-disciplinary multimedia project that dealt with historic impressions of the Arctic and how we can imagine a future there. With the fanciful air of Jules Verne, Marsching and Mitchell Joachim/Terreform worked in collaboration with scientists, architects, artists, and even science fiction writers to conceive how we could sustain life at the North Pole in 100 years.
How disasters affect the land
Another group of artists addressed both natural and man-made disasters and how they affect the land and its inhabitants. Leila Daw’s large-scale paintings dealt with floods and volcanoes and how they impact both the landscape and civilization; in her work, the constructed environment is always being wiped out as a lesson to the interlopers. Melissa Brown and J. Henry Fair dealt more directly with the beauty of a declining landscape. Brown’s Anime-inspired paintings looked like postcard images of national parks until closer examination revealed an oil slick on the surface of the water or a technicolor view of Niagara Falls. Fair’s unaltered aerial photographs seemed to capture beautiful abstractions of the landscape, while, in truth, their “beauty” was actually the result of man-made chemical processes that are actively polluting the landscape.
Land use and aesthetics
Sustainability and politics of land use were at the forefront for artists who looked at how people use the landscape, and also at alternative modes of energy. Center for Land Use Interpretation’s (CLUI) mission is to better understand land and landscape usages through research, artist residencies, and exhibitions. For Badlands, CLUI presented a project entitled Massachusetts Monuments: Images of Points of Interest in the Bay State, which used photographs and text to take museum visitors on a virtual tour of land usage throughout Massachusetts. Visitors weaved through a world of plants and paths, occasionally discovering small carved marble highways and cityscapes in Yutaka Sone’s indoor “jungles” — ideal worlds where nature engulfs “progress.” Joseph Smolinski, on the other hand, provided a creative solution to the politics of the land use by creating a wind turbine made to look like an enormous pine tree — not unlike the cell phone tower “trees” that dot our highways — merging a facsimile of a natural environment with a renewable power source.
Though much of the work in Badlands dealt with decline and ecological ruin, the exhibition was not without beauty, and the ultimate message was, perhaps, just to look, really look at the landscape around you. The final group of artists marveled at the physical “beauty” of the natural world. Anthony Goicolea straddled fantasy and reality by presenting monumental photographs of unpopulated, surreal landscapes that referenced the Hudson River School and Ansel Adams but were decidedly contemporary, and almost sinister. Snowscape (2002-03), a 26-foot panoramic print, was installed in MASS MoCA’s Tall Gallery. Jennifer Steinkamp’s projections offered views of swaying trees or dancing flowers that blended a sort of technicolor beauty with digital rather than naturalistic effect.
Nina Katchadourian enticed viewers to look beyond the gallery walls to the outdoors. Visitors who searched long and far enough were rewarded with the sight of an altered tree, installed with permanently brilliant fall foliage, impervious to the change of seasons. Mary Temple similarly played with traditional notions of how we look at trees. As soon as viewers of Badlands walked into the gallery they saw shadows of trees on the walls, miraculously visible without nearby windows. This is Temple’s work, subtle wall drawings of the shadows of trees, both seemingly present and disappearing before the viewer’s eyes, just like the landscape itself.
Companion Exhibition, Cultivate, at Berkshire Botanical Garden
The exhibition Cultivate at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts opened in June 2008, served as a companion to Badlands. The artists at MASS MoCA presented a darker side of the declining landscape, but at the Berkshire Botanical Garden the artists in Cultivate took a nurturing approach to nature, focusing on man’s symbiotic relationship with the land. Ten artists including Betsy Alwin, Vaughn Bell, Leila Daw, Christopher Frost, R. Elliott Katz, Lynn Koble, Joseph Smolinski, and Jennifer Zackin were let loose in the gardens to create works that highlighted the beauty of the landscape.
Badlands was supported in part by Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and the LEF Foundation.
Anthony Goicolea, Tree Dwellers, 2004