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Imaging the River: A Report from the Hudson


by Tricia Watts (2003)

My First trip to NYC since 9/11. I decide to attend the reception for Imaging the River at the Hudson River Museum. Amy Lipton, my partner in ecoartspace, has curated yet another eco-art exhibition. This is her second large show in the last two years (I missed ecovention in Cinncinati Summer 2002). This time I decide that I want to support Amy with my presence, but more so, to learn about the Hudson River through the eyes of both historical and contemporary artists. This is my first time to lay eyes on the Hudson River beyond Manhattan!

Amy Lipton with Brooklyn artist Jason Walz at the entrance to Imaging the River.
Amy Lipton with Brooklyn artist Jason Walz at the entrance to Imaging the River.

Only six months ago, Amy was invited to pull together a group of contemporary artists who have engaged the Hudson River in their art and to find artists on the East Coast who could create installations about the Hudson with short notice. Hudson River Museum Curator of Collections, Laura Vookles, selected historical works from their permanent collection, which offered viewers a starting point for exploring more contemporary works. This is something I proposed a few years ago to the National Wildlife Museum in Wyoming and received much hesitation from their board of directors. It was great to see this approach finally being implemented with contemporary and historical artworks hung side by side.

Having never studied the Hudson River School painters and after driving back and forth from Amy's house, one hour north of the museum on the Hudson, I really "got" why artists have been drawn to depict life on the river. It is huge, vast, like nothing in Southern California were I live. Durand, Bristol, Ross, Coleman, Brevoort, Stengel, Tyler, Fuechsell, and Cropsey -- all beautifully romantic and idyllic scenes. However, a hundred years later, artists now do not see the Hudson's beauty so much as they see a beautiful place being abused and contaminated by "us".

Amy selected 24 artists to create contemporary interpretations, including artists who she worked with on ecovention, such as: Helen and Newton Harrison, who created a series of watershed maps of the Hudson River Valley, revealing fragmentation of the wild spaces and wildlife corridors; Aviva Rahmani who painted 8 panels interpreting views from the museum which sits on the Hudson river in Yonkers (which most Manhattanites are unfamiliar with- even though it is a mere 10 miles north of the Bronx) accompanied by a powerpoint screen display and headset with Rahmani singing "For the Beauty of the Earth;" Basia Irland who displayed a unique bottle collection with samples of water from all over the world, now including the Hudson River; and Buster Simpson, who reluctantly exhibited a photographic documentation of his most famous work Hudson Headwaters Purge or "River Rolaids," showing images of the limestone discs in the river and the dissolving discs 10 years later. Simpson at first felt that this piece was overexposed, then realized that it was appropriate for Imaging the River after all.

On the Hudson River Drainage Basin, 2003
by Helen and Newton Harrison
On the Hudson River Drainage Basin: The Forest: First Sketch - On Woods and Water, 2003 by Helen and Newton Harrison

Other artists included which I was familiar with were: Alexis Rockman who exhibited a digitally produced poster of a mother, son, unborn child and fish all contaminated by PCB's that was commissioned by Riverkeeper as a part of a campaign series. This image was splashed on billboards, bus shelters and phone booths in New York City last summer to alert the public about the threat of toxicity in the Hudson and the responsibility of corporations to clean the wastes they create; and Ann Rosenthal and Steffi Domike who created a map of sites portrayed in historic postcards and then placed fabrics at each site along the Hudson River to "measure" the sediment of the river. They also published their own postcard, which explored the history of culverting waterways and then asked viewers to write their reactions about the exhibit. Visitors were then asked to leave these postcards for other visitors to read and to take one home as a reminder of their Hudson River exhibit experience

Artists who directly related their works to the Hudson River School historic landscape paintings and that were somewhat familiar to me included: Colin Barclay who's paintings are almost indistinguishable from the Hudson River School painters except for his more contemporary gold leaf framing and more blue/gray palette; Dan Ford's humorous interpretations of the Hudson School paintings with painterly inclusions of present day consumerism, dotting the landscape with a Mc Donalds hamburger joint on the Hudson River banks; Alison Moritsugu with her painterly scene of the Hudson river delivered on the end of a log and placed delicately behind glass, asking to be preserved and protected like the landscape she depicts; and Bob Braine, who presented 4 large scale infrared aerial photographs of sites from 19th Century paintings surveying current land use. He then collaged an image of the historic location on each piece, revealing through comparison the underbelly of progress.

Basia Irland, Poem for Yemanja, 1988.
Basia Irland, Poem for Yemanja, 1988 (Glass bottles, river water, wooden shelves) Collection of the artist.

New artists works introduced to me in this exhibition were: Sandy Gellis, who for the month of May in 2002, took water samples from the Hudson, then tested the water for minerals. She then made drawings, which were mounted on glass using iron, copper, lead, zinc, barium and chromium in a swirling motion to embellish an awareness of the natural "contaminants" present in the Hudson River. Jaime Davidovich filmed from the 91st floor of the World Trade Tower 1 in 2000, a ship slowly flowing down the Hudson River. He bathed this image in the color red as a reminded of the immigrants who sailed the Hudson to find freedom. My favorite piece by Alan Michelson, a video projection on a guilded framed canvas, is a time-laspe of day to night in 31 minutes, in a painterly style panoramic view of the controversial Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant on the Hudson River. Susan Jennings also using advanced technologies displayed on a flat plasma screen, a DVD video projection capturing light on the surface of the Hudson River at day and night. On a loop of 15 minutes of day and 15 minutes of night, I never returned in time to see what the daytime looked like. And, Rosalind Schneider who shot video imagery of ice melting on the Hudson River, then layered the imagery into total abstraction and projected this transformation onto the museum wall.

Other photographic works of New York artists new to me were: Larry Frankel who displayed a light box with 3 filmstrips of Hudson River Walks where visitors were invited to use a viewing loop to vicariously join in; Timothy White who shot large format aerial photographs on assignment for Riverkeeper from actor Harrison Ford's helicopter to document polluters on the Hudson River; Maxine Henryson displayed 10 photographs from a body of work she created over the course of six years while taking a train to Vermont from New York City along the Hudson River. These images portray the commuters view through the seasons as a fast moving, meditative views of the Hudson; Renata Rainer displayed two photomontage works layering images of the Hudson river on top of more images of the Hudson, which she took on a two-day boat ride with the Riverkeeper boat captain over the summer capturing the Clearwater sailing sloop in front of Indian Point. Hudson Clearwater, the original environmental grassroots organization on the Hudson was founded by singer Pete Seeger; and Jason Walz a Brooklyn artist who shot with a cheap manual advance camera, a panoramic image of the Hudson from lower Manhattan with the sun shining in 10 different spots, repeating each shot within one frame.

There were only two pieces which sat in museum style vitrines on the ground level, one by Rachel Rabinovich who "showcased" a liquid library of Hudson River soaked papers, or mud drawings, with varying degrees of soot and soil neatly displayed as if they were scientific evidence or precious artistic creations. And, Janice Gordon, who collected stones from the Hudson River, then sculpted from wood a "mother stone" to hold these gathered stones titled, "Sounding Stone." Both works comment on the institutional role of presenting nature and it's processes.

Roy Staab finishing his installation,
Roy Staab putting the finishing touches on his outdoor installation "River Surface" before the opening reception.

And last, but definitely not least, in the museum's courtyard, Roy Staab constructed a mesmerizing river of bundled cordgrass, mimicking the river's surface. Made with native grasses and gathered by Staab along the Hudson River's edge, Imaging the River feels complete with this dramatically crafted ephemeral sculpture.

My respect for Amy's curatorial abilities runs high. As a curator, I know it is difficult to draw attention to our flaws as humans, addressing how the beauty of the Hudson is what ultimately pollutes it. Environmental artists seem to relish in revealing our short sightedness. And curators always run the chance of having low attendance due to the lack of willingness to take responsibility as a society struggling to survive. Imaging the River allows the romantic landscape lover a constructivist springboard into a higher consciousness.

If you plan on visiting the Hudson River Museum, I highly recommend you also visit the Riverama exhibit, recently completed and highly interactive to learn more about the science of the Hudson River. Steve Ruff, the Science Coordinator for the Hudson River Museum has done a remarkable job keeping the exhibits simple yet visually and physically appealing. Also, do not miss the opportunity to see Brandon Ballengee and Eve Laramee's installations at Wave Hill, just down the Hudson River in the Bronx, about 10 minutes from Yonkers. Both works are visually striking and filled with great information. Every parent in Manhattan should take their family to see these two exhibits!

Imaging the River curated by Amy Lipton
October 4th, 2003 - May 24th, 2004
Hudson River Museum of Art
For more information and directions go to their website at: http://www.hrm.org/

Hudson River Projects curated by Jennifer McGregor
Brandon Ballengee and Eve Andree Laramee
September 6th - November 30th, 2003
Wave Hill
For more information and directions go to their website at: http://www.wavehill.org

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