An Artificial Wilderness: The Landscape in Contemporary Photography @Wadsworth Atheneum

JTF (just the facts): A group show of work by 16 photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against grey walls in a series of three connected rooms and an adjacent entry area on the first floor of the museum. (Installation shots below.)

The following photographers have been included in the exhibit, with the number of works on view and image details as background:

Entry

  • Rosemary Laing: 1 chromogenic print, 2001

First Room

  • Claire Beckett: 1 archival pigment print, 2008
  • Edward Burtynsky: 3 chromogenic prints, 1999, 2001
  • Sandy Skoglund: 1 cibachrome print, 1987, with accompanying sculpture
  • Doug and Mike Starn: 1 mixed media work made of toned silver prints, scotch tape, toned ortho film, wood, nails, and glue, 1988-1989
  • James Welling: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1981

Second Room

  • Lewis Baltz: 1 cibachrome triptych, 1989
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1963-1964
  • Frank Breuer: 12 c prints, with Diasec on MDF, 1995-1997
  • Ed Ruscha: 4 artist’s books, 1962-1967 (in glass case)
  • Louise Lawler: 1 cibrachrome print on museum mount, 1985
  • James Welling: 1 Epson 9800 print on Museo Silver rag, 2010

Third Room

  • Olafur Eliasson: 2 chromogenic prints, 2000
  • Andy Goldsworthy: 4 mounted works, made of cibachrome photos and graphite inscriptions (2 triptychs, 1 set of 6 images, 1 single image)
  • Ana Mendieta: 3 color photographs, 1973, 1976, 1978, 1 gelatin silver print, 1981

Comments/Context: A comprehensive survey of the diversity in contemporary landscape photography would require far more space than the three rooms devoted to this show, but this tightly edited sampler still manages to touch on a number of key themes and approaches to the land that have emerged over the past 50 years. In general, the show bypasses classic landscapes highlighting the beauty and grandeur of treasured vistas and natural wonders and instead opts for a more interventionist viewpoint, gathering together images of man’s impact on the land, loosely covering our construction (and destruction) of different environments, our conceptual ordering of the land, and the evidence of our hand in otherwise pristine settings.

The first section of the exhibit is largely concerned with landscape constructions and domestications, from Rosemary Laing’s floral carpet installed on a forest floor to Claire Beckett’s plywood and cinder block fake Iraqi town made used for military training. This idea is taken to its most literal ends in works by Sandy Skoglund and Mike and Doug Starn, where the hand crafted physicality in the artworks is more pronounced, and then swings back to the tangible results of industrial growth, epitomized by Edward Burtynsky’s massive pile of discarded tires and his hulking ship carcasses stranded on the beaches of Bangladesh.

The second group of works takes a much more conceptual view of the land. Early photobooks from Ed Ruscha put gas stations, apartments, parking lots, and the Sunset Strip into ordered groups, while Bernd and Hilla Becher capture taxonomies of obsolete industrial forms. Frank Breuer’s prints of boxy warehouses and corporate logos similarly pare their sculptural geometries back to essentials, as a massive Lewis Baltz triptych finds unexpected beauty in the pink glow of an Italian parking lot. The land is investigated most indirectly by Louise Lawler and her fragmented image of the ornate frame of a Claude Lorrain painting and by James Welling in his crumpled tin foil images that look uncannily like foliage.

The final room in the exhibit turns to more symbiotic interventions in the land, where artists have used the natural environment as the raw material for making their works. Ana Mendieta carves cave walls into symbols of female fertility, lies covered in white flowers in a grave-like trench, and disappears into the bark of tree covered from head to toe in mud. And Andy Goldsworthy constructs a snow sculpture under the arch of tree branch, a circular hole in the snow offering different perspectives as the day passes.

Seen together, the show has a kind of gentle rhythm, where connected photographic ideas about the landscape genre are handed off from one artist to the next. What could have seemed like a random assortment of contemporary landscapes instead pulls the viewer along a set of evolving visual approaches, offering highlights and examples of current practice. It’s an abbreviated argument, but it successfully delivers a coherent set of connections.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibit, there are, of course, no posted prices. That said, nearly all of the photographers included in the show have decently well established secondary markets for their work, so interested collectors can gather further information from those sales.

Ana Mendieta, Andy Goldsworthy, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Claire Beckett, Ed Ruscha, Edward Burtynsky, Frank Breuer, James Welling, Lewis Baltz, Louise Lawler, Mike and Doug Starn, Olafur Eliasson, Rosemary Laing, Sandy Skoglund, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by GOST Books (here). Hardcover, clothbound, 136 pages including 12 foldouts, with 57 color reproductions. Includes a short text by the artist. In ... Read on.

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