We turn our eyes … to the most characteristic examples of modern landscape, and, I believe, the first thing that will strike us, is their cloudiness.
This 1846 John Ruskin quote was recently used not in connection with the paintings of J.M.W. Turner—daring for their time as they were—but to introduce an eclectic and ultra-contemporary selection of artworks called Badlands, now on view at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
For as long as I’ve been observing (and for a while, a part of) the contemporary art scene, I’ve watched artists struggle with how to depict nature in modern times. For many, traditional uninflected depictions of beautiful vistas seem impossible, given the compromised nature of what unspoiled landscape remains. Anyone taking a drive down the NYS Thruway, as I just did, must feel far removed from the days of the Hudson River School. (Even those artists were known to edit out man’s presence from their sublime interpretations.)
But the paradox remains that no matter how dire the message of the artist, their job still seems to be to amaze, amuse, and awe us, as many of the participants in this show did. Take Jennifer Steinkamp’s video projection, shown above and at top. The 25-foot-high tree’s undulating branches go from winter bareness to green leaves to pink blossoms to russet, and many visitors were finding it mesmerizing. I was only slightly perturbed that the tree seemed to have maple tree leaves and cherry tree flowers.
Also spectacular were the paintings of Alexis Rockman, who made a special trip to Antarctica so he could paint these icebergs, which you may take as symbols of global warming—or not. Rockman’s paintings manage to be unironically gorgeous, while J. Henry Fair’s hyped-up photographs of waste containment pools, (from a power plant in Niagara Falls, ugh), were horribly beautiful.
Finally, a few installations brought a welcome dose of lush greenery inside the museum. Vaughn Bell’s interactive terrariums let you put your head into the plexi cases and domes from below, while Yutaka Stone made a little jungle in a brightly sunlit corner of the MoCA, in which you’ll find tropical plants surrounding two beautifully carved white marble reliefs showing the LA freeway system.
Both the plants (ficus, alocasia, rubber plant, palms, other types) and the pristine white slabs are equally alluring. I think I saw a pretty bad infestation on one of the fica, but that’s their problem.
The last really good contemporary show around nature/landscape I saw was in Columbus in 94 or so. I highly recommend this one, which is in an amazing facility. Mass MoCA used to be a massive factory complex; only a fraction of the buildings are actually used by the museum, which is still the largest center for contemporary art in U.S.
Badlands is up through April 12, but this place is worth a special journey at any time. And of course the Berkshires are wonderful.