Devil’s Tower has officially become an LA Monument, at least for a little while, until the clay dries in the exhibition of Matthias Merkel Hess‘ new work, which comes down on October 2nd at Las Cienegas Projects. The notion of recreating an iconic natural wonder (the original is located in Wyoming) in an urban setting, even in a gallery, is a novel one. Hess, who is the creator of the EcoArtBlog and editor/publisher of Mammut magazine, which he launched in 2008, is also a recent MFA graduate from UCLA (and undergraduate in Journalism and Environmental Sciences). For his first solo show in a LA gallery, he has chosen to combine his interest in art and ecology with his love of clay, in a brillant “outpost” installation where visitors can purchase handmade postcards, paperweights and miniature color glazed clay replicas of Devil’s Tower, all under $20 each. Wall posters are original works of art and go for a lot more, but still under $1,000. If you cannot afford to go to Wyoming to see the real Devil’s Tower, it is highly suggested you head on over to La Cienega near the 10 Fwy and catch a glimpse of Hess’ handmade wonder ASAP.
Somehow I missed learning about this piece until just recently, but it’s my new favorite work of “land art.” In 1969, John Baldessari took the map of California (lower right) and then went to each place on the map where the map letters spelling ‘California’ would be located. At these sites, he spelled out the letter in rocks or some other way, or maybe he found them. I don’t know exactly how he mad the piece, but it’s a pretty hilarious work and definitely in line with my other favorite piece of land art, Bruce Nauman’s untitled text piece which states, “Leave the Land Alone.” (A whole issue of Mammut was devoted to this text piece.)
Unfortunately, the online images of Baldessari’s piece aren’t that great. I’ll keep my eyes open for a better version, maybe in a book image that can be scanned. I also just read an excellent Dave Hickey piece on land art from the September-October 1971 issue of Art in America. In it, Hickey examines the perceived notion that land or earth artists were challenging the status of object production or the space of the museum. This is a viewpoint that still seems to be thrown around today. Hickey points out that the work was marketable and that many museums commissioned land art projects. He goes on to write that
It is not the Earth artists who are challenging the market and the museums, but the magazines themselves. Earth art and its unpackageable peers cannot hurt the market, but extensive magazine coverage can, since not as much object art will get exposure. The magazines have found in this unpackageable art a vehicle through which they can declare their independence from art dealers who invented the critical press, nurtured it, and have tended to treat it like a wholly own subsidiary. Now there is an art form ideally suited to presentation via magazine. Work consisting of photographs and documentation is not presented by journalism, but as journalism—a higher form—needless to say.
The people on the magazines must believe (and I think rightly) that these indefinite art forms might do for the magazines what Pop Art did for the dealers—lend a certain institutional luster,, and with it a modicum of arbitrary power.
It’s a great read of Earth Art and it makes sense to me. And works like Baldessari’s map project or Nauman’s text piece point to movements spawned by Earth Art, such as environmental art, where it’s not about bulldozers and diesel or creating monuments, but instead a use of land in a way that is less invasive. And artists have come up with a variety of strategies to turn that kind of art into careers—whether that means founding their own non-profits, existing on museum commissions or yes, making things for galleries. It’s hard to be a rebel these days, but there are still interesting things to do.