This post comes to you from EcoArtSpace
Gallery Review by Leila Nadir for ecoartspace
There’s no such thing as nature.
For some, this fact is commonplace: there is virtually no place on earth untouched by human beings, especially if climate change is considered. For others, this fact inspires deep anxiety: What exactly do nature skeptics think trees and glaciers are if not natural? These dichotomous responses to the current environmental condition of our planet usually causes conversation to stalemate. It is rare when a piece of writing or a work of art breaks through this divisive questioning to initiate a genuine dialogue about the complicated relationship of the human species to its physical environment—ecologically, historically, and perceptually.
Adam Cvijanovic’s recent solo exhibition, Natural History, at Postmasters Gallery, which ran from September 8–October 13, exposes the elaborate artifice behind what we call “Nature.” However, his paintings do not adopt a simple, “nothing-is-natural” stance. Rather, they suggest that nature may in fact exist but that humanity’s access to it is filtered by the accumulation of cultural data settled into our minds, shaping how we think, see, and imagine. Whether through advanced communications media or the seemingly isolated movement of a painting brush, anytime we reference or depict “nature,” Cvijanovic suggests, we are circling it, containing it, trying to capture it with our net of compulsive human misunderstanding.
The centerpiece of the show is the sixty-five-foot Discovery of America, which Cvijanovic painted on Tyvek and adhered directly to the gallery walls. The painting involves a collision of three scenes. An artist who has vacated her/his studio is in the process of creating a landscape painting of the western North American coast during the Pleistocene era. The pristine nature in the painting is inspired by dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. Armadillos, saber-tooth tigers, mammoths, and many other prehistoric species roam the mountains and the plains, most of whom disappeared quickly after the arrival of homo sapiens on the continent. Shop lights, 2x4s, a ladder, and a pizza delivery box are scattered about a grey floor, a floor that merges with Postmasters’ own concrete floor, melding artwork and gallery, creating for a feeling of displacement for the viewer—as if we can’t trust our own senses, as if any perception of nature is framed by unstable categories.
Crashing into the pristine nature of Discovery of America’s Pleistocene landscape is a scene of men dashing through the plains on horses, based on a photograph of the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889. Rendered in black-and-white, the cowboys appear to be riding through an old Hollywood Western film, and they cause the canvas to shred and tear, smashing its frame into smithereens. The destroyed continuity of the painting suggests the inability to depict what exactly happened when humanity arrived in North America, or when European settlers pushed aside indigenous inhabitants—as if there were a chronological or geographical gap in our representational abilities. How do we cognitively imagine what life on earth was like before the destruction wrought by our species? The painting’s wooden structure spills out onto the studio floor, where the artist has left quite a few empty bottles of beer. The painting shows that this rupture is momentous, cinematic, but also mundane, the aftermath of which we are all living in today, in a human-dominated planet earth. What more can we do than go have a drink?
Cvijanovic’s other paintings cite far-ranging sources of our contemporary visions of nature, including the romantic Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, the mythical fantasy of unicorns, and perhaps most relevant to our times, media culture. White Tailed Deer offers a colorful, fall-time forest with an elegant lake in the background. The trees and leaves are nearly realistic, but they contain a hint of the high-contrast colors associated with animated film and video games. Standing in the foreground and framed by bright red leaves is a truly animated character, Bambi, surrounded by his skunk and rabbit friends from the 1942 Walt Disney film. The animals have huge, wide, glowing eyes—the sort that make humans say “Ah, how cute” before bending down to pet the wild animals who, in a real forest, would have no interest in them. Although White Tailed Deer’s collision of traditional landscape painting with a film animation of wildlife is not as stark or as violent as that in Discovery of America, we are reminded of the vast distance between nature and the ways in which our culture and media shape the way we see understand this concept. How many of us have had a friendly, fun Bambi (or Dumbo, Simba, Thumper, or Sebastian) lurking in our unconscious?
In Osborne Caribou, a caribou stands tall and proud atop a pile of bloody, skinned carcasses. That the caribou are gutted with the clean lines of a knife indicates a hunters’ work, suggesting yet another way in which humans relate to the natural world, as food to be eaten. The standing caribou looks hyperreal; the outline of his body is too vivid and smooth, as if Cvijanovic were adopting a photoshop aesthetic in his painting. The caribou looks as though it might move at any moment. The painting raises the question as to whether our encounters with animals have become so dominated by media representations that we expect animals to act like animations.
Natural History is not a clever riff on the American Museum of Natural History nor a nonstop vortex of signifiers nor a self-referential painting about painting, as previous critics have claimed. Those elements may be present, but Natural History goes beyond them to initiate an artistic meditation on the labor and subjectivity behind what we call science and nature, behind the supposed objectivity of the museum. Nature is not a perfect origin or an untouched state in Cvijanovic’s work. It loses that aura of timelessness. Instead, the viewer becomes aware of nature as an elusive quality that is always in a state of becoming and unbecoming, subject to whims, to moods, to the media we have consumed or the beers we have imbibed. Does Discovery of America really depict what the Late Pleistocene Era looked like? Does the Museum of Natural History do better? Or are our understandings of natural history the product of a painter who just ate too much pizza? Cvijanovic’s work asks, are we, as human beings, imprisoned by our own natural concepts, illusions, and designs? Nature might exist but it can only be understood through out limited and malleable human imagination.
ecoartapace ecoartspace is a nonprofit platform providing opportunities for artists who address the human/nature relationship in the visual arts. Since 1999 they have collaborated with over 150 organizations to produce more than 40 exhibitions, 100 programs, working with 400 + artists in 15 states nationally and 8 countries internationally. Currently they are developing a media archive of video interviews with artists and collection of exhibitions ephemera for research purposes. Patricia Watts is founder and west coast curator. Amy Lipton is east coast curator and director of the ecoartspace NYC project room.
A project of the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs since 1999
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