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Wheatfield - A Confrontation, Battery Park Landfill, 1982
Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation, Battery Park Landfill, 1982.
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rtists since antiquity have depicted nature in countless ways. While nature has certainly been one of the most universal sources of inspiration for artists, in 20th century Western art it has not been a predominant aesthetic issue or force. In the late 19th century Hudson River School artists such as Frederick Church, Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt made spiritually inclined, transcendent landscape paintings reflecting a relationship of communion with nature. Most contemporary art connected with this tradition is perceived as nostalgic, as having a post-industrial longing for a non-existent mythological place. A romanticized view of nature is no longer available to us today as weve devastated and depleted our natural resources.

"The dispassionate eye" of Cartesian perspective culminating in 20th century Modernism has taken us away from an holistic view of nature towards a more detached, interior, subjective psychological space. The outcome of this type of Modernist thinking has resulted in an art dislocated from life and obsessed with a scientific notion of absolute truth, technological progress and the separation of humanity from the rest of the planet.

Weidenkreis, Willow Circle, planting, Chiengau Upper Bavaria, Germany, 1979
Nils Udo, Weidenkreis, Willow Circle, planting, Chiengau Upper Bavaria, Germany, 1979
Some of the earthwork and land artists from the 60's and 70's and socially conscious artists like Joseph Beuys began the process of rectifying Modernism's detachment. However, the subsequent cynicism of 80s and 90s Post-Modernism has offered little genuine change and has not taken art out of its isolationist position. Contemporary art discourse does not include much discussion regarding spirituality, mysticism or reverence for nature because the prevailing belief has been that irony is the only tool available to negotiate the highly mediated world. The challenge today is to invent a new paradigm, one which makes room for mythological thinking in art. Artist Mel Chin has accomplished this in his work Revival Field by combining science, mythology, ecological activism and aesthetics. This approach is not a fall back into superstition but a healing vision with an outward focus.

This exhibition uses the organizing figure of the garden through which a variety of works can be brought together. Some of the artists approach the subject in a contemplative or ritualistic manner, such as Nils Udo's Zen-like arrangements of natural found materials, Roy Staab's ephemeral reed sculptures, Chrysanne Stathacos' performance based Flower Mandala and Joanne Howard's laboriously strung Cicada sculpture.

Jackie Brookner, Prima Lingua, 1996
Others take a more active interventionist approach as with Mel Chin's reclamation work, Revival Field , Aviva Rahmani's, 9 year long restoration performance work, Ghost Nets., Betsy Damon's revolutionary river cleansing park, the Living Water Garden and Kathryn Miller's transformation of urban blight under a freeway, The Grasslands Project. Jackie Brookner's moss sculpture Prima Lingua, which detoxifies water as it filters through it and Tim Collins/Reiko Goto's Aachen Water Mark using living willow plants to cleanse water in city fountains are examples of works that use both metaphor and actual bio systems to demonstrate ecological principles at work.

Like many of these artists, Joan Bankemper and Susan Leibovitz Steinman work collaboratively with community groups, local residents and school students to create garden projects that bring renewal to formally degraded sites. Agnes Denes', monumental Tree Mountain in Finland invited 11,000 people from around the world to each plant a tree, creating the first man made virgin forest.

Tim Collins & Reiko Goto, "Aachen Water Mark", 1999
Artists, Paula Hayes and Janet Pihlblad, use living, growing and changing plants to create sculptures and installations, as does Peter Coffin in his sound installation with plants, Perfect If On and composer/performer Ben Neill in his projected environment with plants and interactive sound, Green Machine. Michele Stuart used plants, flowers, and earth to create her mural painting, Paradisi and David Chow paints giant flowers of enormous beauty and translucency.

Figures such as the garden, flowing water and light, and the tree of life and knowledge can all be found in ancient Biblical and medieval mystical texts which involve sun and moon cycles, star formations, tides and seasons. The artists in this exhibition are working with these natural transformative processes towards a new vision- one that is ecological, cyclical, feminist and holistic, opening up the possibility of a new landscape, an alchemical garden.

Betsy Damon, "The Living Water Garden", 1999
These artists are involved in a re-engagement with nature that goes beyond representation to an active participation with the living cycles of nature. Connected to but revolutionizing the landscape tradition, these are works without an horizon which are not concerned with viewing nature from afar but rather of engaging with it directly. These works embody a broader concept of art in its relationship to nature, one which is informed but not limited by science, history and critical discourse.

The most pressing issue of our day and certainly into this new century is the global environment. The intent of this exhibition is to raise environmental awareness by presenting works that transcend current issues in much contemporary art that is addressing popular culture. This process is one of healing in a physical and metaphysical sense. The theme is a synthesis of our post-Newtonian age with its deconstructive practices and decentering electronic technologies with the symbolic past, the proto-scientific age of alchemy which referenced an even more ancient prehistoric time when art and nature were not so clearly distinct from one another.

Amy Lipton
curator, ecoartspace
April 2002
Beacon, NY