Specific Environments: The Landscape as Metaphor

Specific Environments: The Landscape as Metaphor was conceived as the dynamism of visual forces, unearthing art that is actionable, and objects that ask the viewer to step away from the obvious and move toward the enigmatic, yet not arcane. The goal was to bring together artists whose works are not merely handmade copies of nature, but who use landscape, nature, and the land to enter into a discourse of contemporary issues of our time: environmental degradation, consumption, myth, memory, and perception, and the intersection of technology and terrain, both internal and external. When put together in one gallery setting, the additional aim is to invite the viewer to enter through something familiar, but to emerge knowing something beyond the evidentiary.

This exhibition began by selecting six invited artists with differing approaches to nature, landscape, the environment, and place: Kevin Bell, Chris Coleman, Gregory Euclide, Jenny Gummersall, Laleh Mehran, and Kate Petley. Artists then submitted works and 40 were selected for inclusion based upon the framework presented by the invited artists. However, the seed of the concept began with Kate Petley, an artist I have known professionally and personally for several years. Petley once lived in the small town in Southwestern Colorado where I currently reside. It’s a gorgeous place, surrounded by the craggy San Juan Mountains, and a vast wilderness. The area is thinly populated and has no big box stores or urban conveniences. It was here that Petley created her largest public artwork Air Drops for the Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas. Her juicy abstract resin panels explore the edges where the urban world bumps up against nature and that tension comes from her relocation to the Front Range. While living in Southwest Colorado, her works were about light, time, and the glimpses of nature caught from the corner of one’s eye. It is inevitable that we came to know one another, living in such a small town, and we remain in a network of artists, writers, and curators who share ideas over soy latte’s and Facebook. Petley shared her concept for Glint: Time and Light with me via email. She then posted it on her website. I kept returning to the work, which seizes on the moment that sunlight reflects off the surface of the water, but is created using industrial film, unfinished wood, and theatrical lighting, for its perception about place and its pretense of nature.

Petley’s work kept bumping up in my mind against the ideas explored by Gregory Euclide,an artist I have written about for Art Ltd magazine, and as an essayist for the David B. Smith Gallery in Denver. His approach to landscape is one that challenges viewers to see small realities and visual misconceptions. His painted, crumbled, mixed media artworks and installations cogitate between the artifice of making an object, the Duchampian tradition of finding an object and making it art, and the actual land. In Capture #3 the sculpture is formed by pouring a glue-like substance on the ground and literally lifting the earth beneath to create the object. He uses lake water, melted snow, and pigments created from dirt combined with found objects and items from nature to create his works that explore the representation of the landscape in art, as in Produced within the layers of viewing’s making. Euclide is critical of Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole, who attempted to convey on a flat rectangle the dynamic experience of nature over time. Euclide wants the viewer to go into the flat spaces not only with their mind, but to enter the 3-D spaces with their physical body.

Both Petley and Euclide ask viewers to enter into a landscape, if not physically, then perhaps figuratively. Imagining the dimensionality of reality. Exploring the relationship between inner and outer topography. They are aware of the traditions of landscape art and have no interest in repeating what many still consider to be the ideal form of creative expression—depicting Nature as
is, as seen, as perceived.

Therefore, it was important that a “landscape painter” be in included in Specific Environments. Kevin Bell is the kind of painter I wanted for this exhibition— one that handles paint masterfully, minimally, and realistically, yet incorporates complex concepts onto the canvas. Bell also helps viewers see what is not readily visible, while challenging perceptions and beliefs. His works deliberate on the man-made and natural environments, but are particularly focused on the tension between the two, which often results in ambivalence. In Sinkhole, unseen erosion results in collapse and introversion, while in Dam an invisible man-made structure is suggested not only by the title, but the depiction of the land. Bell works in the negative spaces highlighting the importance of editing, paring down, and suggestion in our society.

Photographer Jenny Gummersall envisions innuendo as well in her abstract equine landscape photographs. The playful, yet serious aesthetic quality of her work was something I also wanted to explore in this exhibition. It is not necessary for art to be academic and cryptic. It can be accessible, yet rich in beauty and meaning. One of the things I admire most about Gummersall’s work is how she makes the ordinary look extraordinary. In With Clouds and Mane Landscape Square the viewer does a double take. The physical landscape becomes an otherworldly landscape. It seems at once simple, but upon closer examination, the viewer realizes what they are seeing, challenging their initial myths and memories.

When considering the otherworldly, my perceptions jump to technology, which infiltrates and influences our lives in dramatic ways. It is technology that impacts our environment and landscapes. Everything we use to make our lives “easier” involves the use of materials extracted from the land. So it was imperative that Specific Environments include new media animation and HD video. Ivar Zeile, the director of Plus Gallery in Denver suggested I contact Chris Coleman and when I perused his website I knew I had found what I was looking to include in this exhibition. Coleman then introduced me to his wife Laleh Mehran. Coleman and Mehran are instructors in new media and digital art at the University of Denver. His award-winning HD animation The Magnitude of the Continental Divides takes viewers on a journey between many locations in various states of withdrawal and aggression, but more importantly for this exhibition is the notion that the individual is caught in the midst of this chaos, unable to define their identity without place. Place is paramount. “It is the stuff of fiction, as close to our living lives as the earth we can pick up and rub between our fingers, something we can feel and smell,” Eudora Welty wrote.

It is not so much place as point of view that is questioned in Mehran’s projected video Xerces Society, Installment VII: From London to Marrakech. The projection utilizes apertures that are at once windows and eyes suggesting travel by train. A parade of level images raise questions in the viewer’s mind and create the tension of point of view. Mehran blurs art, science, and politics together while exploring the complexities of fanaticism and ideolog—critical notions in a world experiencing upheaval and questioning borders.

Every artwork is a metaphor. But how do we understand and interpret metaphor?

The human brain functions by using a structured set of generic knowledge called schema by cognitive psychologists. When we approach the idea of metaphor, we are employing use of schema. The artist uses their own personal schema to elaborate their visual metaphor. If the viewer doesn’t have a similar schema, they cannot receive the information. They may interpret the metaphor based on their own schemata or perceptions and not that of the artist. However, decoding a map, whether spatial or thematic, seems to be quite natural for most humans. Many theorist’s posit that this is because the landscape metaphor and the way we view our spatial environment requires a knowledge of terrain and our corporeal presence in space. Something we all have. This is why when we look at a painting and see three horizontal bands of color, we automatically presume it to be landscape—terroir, horizon, and sky.

Each of the artists juried into this exhibition relates, reacts, riffs and rubs up against these invited artists works and ideas. An individual artwork represents its own distinct habitat, and these habitats combine to create a composite of our world, our society, and our culture. Viewed together, I hope that Specific Environments adds up to something more than the sum of its parts. That beyond this moment of viewing something is revealed that was unknown and that together these objects originate a new place as tangible as those we can pick up and rub through our fingers.

Leanne Goebel
Curator and Juror
December 2011

On view through January 14, 2012 at the LINCOLN center gallery in Fort Collins, CO.

Take a YouTube video tour of the exhibition by watching the video below:

Participating Artists


Juried Artists

Catalog available:

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