Art & Culture in Chicago

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nature

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The sunsets in Chicago are unbelievable.

Most of us probably don’t see them because we live tucked down in a thick grid lined by enormous stone buildings, but if you’ve ever taken 290 west as the sun sets, you’ve probably had the pleasure of seeing the phenomena. The bloated radioactive pink orb slowly sinking into the industrial lava, the orange contrails stretching behind Jets and through the stratosphere, through the thick atmospheric mush of car exhaust, wrapping Chicago like Christo and Jeanne-Claude would.

Ah, nature. The simplest and most wondrous pleasure we enjoy.We love nature so much, we can even find beauty on a day in the city when the air quality index is extra low.

Nature has always been popular with artists. When our ancestors painted furry brown bulls running around on the walls of a cave in France 16 thousand years ago, they started a legacy. They were the first painters, as far as we can tell, and their interests have been passed to every generation of artists since then.

J.M.W. Turner is a good one. His amazingly progressive paintings of atmospheric drama are still effective even in this CGI-centric world. His oeuvre focused on shipwrecks, fires, and natural catastrophes. He was fascinated by the violent power of the sea and sky, and his depictions of natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog are breathtaking. Aptly put, the influential English art critic John Ruskin described Turner as the artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of nature.”

Turner’s Romantic contemporaries, namely Asher B. Durand in America, English painter John Constable, and the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, were blossoming. They were developing during a period when a growing disillusionment with an over-materialistic society led to a new appreciation for spiritualism. They wanted to depict nature as a divine creation, to be set against the artifice of human civilization.

Now, over one hundred years later, there is a trend in art reflecting a renewed interest in nature, although the interpretations are much more complicated. Artists’ depictions of and interactions with nature run the gamut from the decorative fantasy paradises of Kinkade and Christian Riese Lassen to art stars like Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell, who are both interested in bodily relationships to nature. Instead of painting a picture of people in a landscape, like the old Romantic painters would, Eliasson and Turrell force a direct relationship between the body and nature by changing the context through which it is experienced. A good example of Turrell’s work are his “Skyspaces”, freestanding enclosed chambers large enough for about 15 people and designed and constructed with immaculate precision to heighten our sense of sight and perception. Inside the skyspace, visitors sit on a bench and view the sky and atmospheric changes through an opening in the roof. On rainy days a moveable dome covers the opening and a secondary light source creates a seemingly infinite visual space beyond the roof.

Then, there is Olafur Eliasson. His installation, The Weather Project, filled the open space of the Tate Londons’ Turbine Hall with representations of the sun and sky. He used humidifiers to create a fine mist in the air as well as a semi-circular disc made up of hundreds of mono-frequency lamps, which emitted pure yellow light. The ceiling of the hall was covered with a huge mirror, in which visitors could see themselves as tiny black shadows against a mass of orange light. Currently on display in New York is an installation of his, called New York City Waterfalls, consisting of four man-made waterfalls placed along the East River.

In Chicago, at the West Loop Galleries, there has been a revival of artists getting mushy about nature. This past summer, Carrie Secrist Gallery put together a show called “Clouds, et al”, (all about clouds), and Kasia Kay Gallery put on a show called “Nature of Wilderness.” In September, nature was displayed at almost every gallery.

 At Tony Wight hangs a large fabric “painting” by Diana Guerrero-Macia of a mountain. Letters, repeatedly spelling the word “mountains”, form the shape of the mountain. The letters are stacked like blocks of moveable type and there is a felt waterfall running down the center.

At Peter Miller, emerging artist Laura Ball is showing paintings of girls chasing each other on merry-go-round horses through fantasy landscapes that are reminiscent of both carnivals and jungles.

At Monique Meloche, Rashid Johnson has installed his “New Escapist Promised Land Garden and Recreation Center”,which, although not without a little tongue in cheek, turns the space into a resort like quasi-utopia, complete with wood-paneled walls, palm fronds, and bamboo chairs.

At Andrew Rafacz, a photographer, John Opera, steals the show. His photos are documentations of his search for personal aesthetic experiences during his conquests into the wild. It doesn’t seem like he’s much of a romantic, though. “I don’t have any delusions about “don’t forget to love nature” bullshit,” he said in an interview in Newcity, “for me it’s more transcendental. I don’t think about how these pictures tug at people’s heartstrings. For me it’s a lot more subjective.”

The most striking homage to nature and nod to romanticism is at Carrie Secrist, though. They seem to have a penchant for artists who work with natural phenomena, and the exhibit up now demonstrates nicely how artists are currently interpreting the space we inhabit. Many of the works in the show seem to nod back to past traditions of earth worship while acknowledging the present, and even the future state of the earth. Intriguing nature-inspired works by 8 different artists are on display, including land (and/or) cloudscapes by Antonia Contro, Joy Episalla, Ken Fandell, Hiro Yokose, and Kim Keever. Also on display are abstracted (but photorealistic) paintings by Robert Standish of traffic lights in the urban Los Angeles landscape, and Petroc Dragon Sesti’s water-filled wonder buckets, with their forever spinning water tornadoes, defying the laws of physics that make things boring.

It isn’t surprising that people are becoming more interested in art involving nature, considering the enormous popularity of eco-friendly homes and lifestyles, due to the environmental crises we’re dealing with. Just as with any disappointing relationship, as we watch the earth crumble away, we love it more and more. 


Written by Kelly Reaves

October 7, 2008 at 6:42 am

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