Staging Ground: A Forest for Artists
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Staging Ground: A Forest for Artists

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Staging Ground: A Forest for Artists

My first viewing of Staging Ground left me spellbound and stimulated. My husband and I had our toddler in tow, so it was destined to be a quick overview. This exhibition at La Esquina was curated by Charlotte Street Studio Resident Lilly McElroy, and features the artists JE Baker, Carl Baratta, The Blue River Road Investigators (Trey Hock and Brent Jackson), Christopher Carroll, Rachel Frank, Jenny Kendler, Lilly McElroy, eduardo restrepo, and Rodrigo Valenzuela. As an artist, I focus on the landscape in my own work, and I’m always yearning to see how other artists are engaging with, and intruding on, the landscape. I returned to the exhibition later in an attempt to absorb and unpack the work, and I set out here to share my reactions in hopes of learning from that impact.

In the press release, this key quote from Giorgio Agamben introduces the curatorial premise: “There does not exist a forest as an objectively fixed environment: there exists a forest for the park ranger, a forest for the hunter, a forest for the botanist, a forest for the wayfarer, a forest for the nature lover, a forest for the carpenter, and finally a fable forest in which Little Red Riding Hood loses her way.” In Staging Ground it seems that the forest for the artist is first a stage, a place to act out mythical, historical, and environmental anxieties, and to perform therapeutic rituals of comfort.

In the history of human ideas about the wilderness, it was often thought of as a terrifying place where good and evil sparred. From the story of being cast out of the Garden of Eden with an admonishment, cursed is the ground because of you, to philosophers entering the forests, seeking dangerous experiences to draw out the sublime, the staggering power of nature has always been humbling for humans. The visions of the Hudson River School painters – landscapes exaggerated and compiled for the highest drama and awe – fell in step with the priorities of the 19th century American zeitgeist: discovering new lands, claiming and taming them. This great essay by William Cronon insists that the forests and plains are not these untouched, pure places we’ve accepted from our Romantic predecessors, but that any allegedly wild place exists now only through a strict human intervention, even violence. This exhibition scrutinizes romantic ideas of the forest without completely discarding them, acknowledging that we are bringing our philosophical baggage along, and it seems to play out most in the humor of some of the performance work.

When we walked in, the gallery attendants noticed I had my toddler with me, and kindly told me that some of the video work could be a bit intense for kids, so I appreciatively kept a lookout. The first thing I noticed in the gallery was the smell: a familiar smoke, not so much like campfire lingering in your jacket from last night’s bonfire, more like a just-extinguished branch of oak or cedar. The content of the exhibition seemed to be divided with works relating to water on the right, and to earth on the left, with a small stage set in the center rear, flanked by dividing walls.

The first object I encountered was a small reproduction of a classical bust of David titled New Ways to See I, lichens bursting from the watchful shepherd’s eyes, the spongy curls of moss emulating his locks. New York-based artist Jenny Kendler had several sculptures placed around the gallery with different kinds of fungus and lichens protruding from the eyes, and they evoked a kind of pleasant dread. Just the night before I had watched Annihilation, a sci-fi/horror movie about a shimmering, expanding field that consumes the landscape and alters the life forms within – an empowered nature bursting through, organic and rotting and efflorescing. It left me with this post-movie dark funk, that even a couple episodes of The Office couldn’t shake, and I carried that feeling with me for days. As it turns out there’s a scientific study that shows people have a more “sublime” experience of art if they first view a bit of horror film, and this is exactly what I encountered.

Christopher Carroll’s prints reveal two tableaus, one filled with Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, and blackberries – all plants that hold such wonderful, personal memories of a childhood spent identifying bugs and frogs in suburban fields and creeks. I recall later as an adult the ecstatic joy of coming upon a thicket of blackberries the size of a house in the summertime, trying my best to reach in and eat them, but the thorns blocked my hands – sweet, chaotic, impenetrable. In the photo, a pair of hands reaches across the flowers and places (or removes?) a large rock on top, and this particular display of gravity helps to orient the viewer to the arrangement of the flowers in space. We must be looking down on the flowers, though they appear to grow up from the log at the bottom of the page. The next tableau holds a cornucopia from deeper, darker places in the forest. There are orange, yellow, brown, and white mushrooms living off decaying material (as my mushroom-obsessed toddler yells “mushroom!” to point them out). Curled up on a black rock, a rubber snake waits, perhaps as a heavily laden mythological symbol, or simply a humorous scare to startle the unsuspecting.

Just past Carroll’s photos is a print by Lilly McElroy, a disorienting image that I believe took me at least three viewings to understand that I was looking at an image of two printed images of prairie tallgrass at dusk or dawn, one print on top of the other, with the top print curled up at the edges, photographed again. It could be one kind of staging ground – a photographic backdrop for a performance.

In the back, west corner of the gallery, one of several groupings of Sumi ink drawings by L.A.-based artist Carl Baratta are installed in a large grid. When I read the title of the series, Hollywood Hills, the first thing that comes to mind is “a forest for joggers.” Baratta’s dark, thick, liquid lines fill individual sheets of paper, each page a study in how to fit receding space into two dimensions. Hanging in a grid, they further fracture and compress space, stacking fields as individual panes in a large, divided window.

Also in the back corner is a video installation by Rodrigo Valenzuela, titled Here.  Over the course of 3 minutes, the camera moves back from a black and white photo of a rocky desert field comprised of dozens of individual prints attached to a large backing, giving the image the effect of being sent by satellite. As the camera recedes from our first view – a finger pointing to the image – we see more of the arm and then the body of the figure, frozen in a gesture indicating “Here!” Finally we see that the muted desert photo is standing in a lush, green forest. The pointing gesture is so sure, so emphatic. I am reminded of the traditions of history painting: David’s Oath of the Horatii, or any painting of a General pointing the way across the Alps or into battle, and I also think of later paintings of Sacagawea pointing Lewis & Clark in the right direction – all fantasized, mythical remembrances of a particularly Eurocentric history. Is Valenzuela’s gesture in service of orientation, or a call to action? Or does it make a claim on a place? Does it assist in revealing a place that at first seems barren, but is actually verdant and thriving, or is the truth revealed in the photograph?

Christopher Carroll and Lilly McElroy’s installation of work from their collaborative project I’m here. Now What? stands in the center of the gallery, and seems to be the conceptual launching point of the exhibition. A small, black, wooden stage is set with printed images of the forest and a huge moon above as the stage scenery, bringing the work into the realm of the theatrical. The arrangement of the two gallery walls flanking the stage support this theme, opening out into the room like a theater. Two camping chairs with Budweisers in the cupholders sit on the stage, reminding me of my own first swipes at independence and adulthood, seeking the cover of the night sky and the light of a campfire in the county camps of the ex-burbs. Below the chairs in place of a fire, a screen plays a performance over the course of 30 minutes.

Describing their collaboration, Carroll and McElroy explain that they “perform actions for a camera through which they challenge, defeat, observe, soothe, and worship nature.” In the video, this same black stage is set deep in the woods, and two people perform a dozen or so brief actions, alternating between the actors: Carroll stands on the platform; time speeds up and night falls. He sits at a school desk and arm-wrestles a tree branch.  McElroy puts on a red dress, and sets out her phone. She embraces a photo of a tree, and later is completely wrapped in the photo. As she struggles valiantly to break free, I come to see her as a sympathetic hero – the exact words I would later read in her description of her work. Two big blue bug lamps zap away in futility at bugs from the seemingly infinite supply (yet insects are a diminishing natural resource we rarely consider). Carroll, dressed as a faun, watches an instructional video of line dancing and tries to do it himself. The humor is absolutely critical to this work, and such a relief – I believe it breaks the spell of the romantic woods, and as a viewer, I am invited to loosen up a bit and play along.

On one diagonal wall flanking the stage, another Charlotte Street studio resident, JE Baker, presents two works. The first, titled Durational Thickness, is comprised of the book On Slowness, which through some process has been imbued with saltwater and lithium sulfate – forming crystals on the cover.  The book stands upright, jacketless, in a dusty blue cover, and the pages sag forward with their own weight, parting at page 117 – a chapter titled “Dream | Time Cinema”. Next on the wall is Baker’s Long View; a photograph of a figure wearing an orange life jacket, reading a book, floats in the center of the frame, surrounded by a blue lake under a blue sky with white fluffy clouds.  

I feel I am meant to see the book and the photograph as being related, as if the floating, reading figure is performing part of the process that leaves the book in its final state. “Durational thickness” is a ponderous phrase, describing something that exists in time, with a beginning and end, but also exists in space, with a measurable physicality and limits… perhaps like a human life or a book. There are references to therapeutic ideas – the title On Slowness brings to mind a posture of mindfulness, though after I downloaded author Lutz Koepnick’s introduction to my Kindle (the opposite of slowness), I see that the book outlines a framework for contemporary art that embraces deliberate aesthetic slowness as a solution to the exhausted possibilities of the modern and the postmodern in art (art is the thing that needs the therapy). Lithium sulfate is the clearest reference to therapy, as its most common usage is in a drug to treat bipolar disorder, but lithium also makes me think of mineral baths sought out by bathers throughout history for their purported healing properties.

Beyond this wall is one more set of works by Baker, a pair of ovular sinks atop pedestals, filled with water. At the bottom of the bowls are illuminated circles that reveal words – the text in This Heartbreaking Region refers to Georges Bataille’s surrealist sex romp The Story of the Eye, and The Scene which Seems to be Seen takes a line from a later book influenced by Bataille –  Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Baker’s ovular bowls may take their form from Bataille’s book – one of his characters is fixated on this eye shape, and it appears as a motif through the narrative. Are these dual lenses binoculars through which to see, or are they seeing us? Both Baker’s illuminated oculi and Jenny Kendler’s classical busts seem to be watching the proceedings, their vision altered – an audience for the theater.

Photo courtesy of Charlotte Street Foundation.

In the back, east corner of the gallery, a 15 minute video by eduardo restrepo is playing. The protagonist runs from site to site, driven by La Llamada, or “The Call,” playing on a portable tape deck. The figure makes a great effort to cross the landscape, and labors at each station, finding mystical figures at every site. I enjoyed restrepo’s nod to Bruce Nauman’s Self Portrait as a Fountain at the waterfall site. The artist in their statement calls La Llamada a “fabula sin moraleja” – a fable without a moral. We are simply along for the ride, playing out the rituals without resolution; I am reminded of the anxiety of contemporary life and relationships, trying to behave in line with norms, when the instructions are inscrutable.

Heading back towards the front of the gallery, I encounter two videos titled Vapors and Vessels by Brooklyn-based artist Rachel Frank. In the Vessels video, a creature that looks like a woolly mammoth seems to narrate a monologue about traversing over and over the paths it remembers from its past life in a soothing pattern, saying,

The images in my mind begin to tremble now, and I remember the past more clearly. When I realized they were all gone, I wandered the landscape removed from that time. I came across a herd of sheep that had succumbed to the fevers of the earth, their bodies melted into the landscape. I tore into their deflated forms, pulling out bones, and breathing in the sweet, greasy starchiness of their hot wool.

I think Frank’s work references our own proposed geological epoch, the Anthropocene, that has been on my mind lately. I can’t help picturing our own strata in the geological layers – our bones mixed in with all the plastic garbage, each little trash bag a sealed time capsule that will last forever, our land fills the tombs containing everything we held precious. I think this work contains that existential anxiety, acted out by an extinct animal forced to haunt his expired landscape.

Next to the videos, a plywood table supports three ceramic stoneware vessels: Rhyton (Large VI. Creature), Rhyton (Medium VII. Pour Out), and Rhyton (Small III. Opening). A rhyton was a container used by ancient civilizations, to drink or pour from, in the form of an animal. The viewer finds Frank’s rhytons reflected in her video, standing in a body of water up to their necks, so as the waves move, the water flows in and out of the vessels – constantly filling up and emptying with the tide. I enjoy seeing contemporary artists using the vessel as a starting point. It’s a form that’s so ancient and basic to survival – you must be able to get water away from the river if you are going to survive; it also serves as a metaphor for the body and the spirit.

Frank’s Auguring Hawk from Vessels hangs on the wall, and in its similarities to the birds on display at Lakeside Nature Center, serves as an appropriate transition to an installation of ephemera from the Blue River Road Investigators project by Trey Hock and Brent Jackson. Part of the Open Spaces arts festival centered in Swope Park, their investigation focused on a closed section of road that became a petri dish for the overlapping ecologies and human interactions that grew when it seemed the road would not reopen. Hock and Jackson created uniforms designating themselves as the guides to this in-between space, but as they note in their labels, the uniforms were “intended to give a sense of ambiguous authority, while the bold ‘ARTIST’ on the high visibility vest was intended to clarify the Investigators specific jurisdiction.” Among assorted objects saved from their time on Blue River Road, Hock and Jackson displayed a hefty chunk of painted asphalt, which they labeled “BLUE RIVER ROAD (detail)”. The Investigators seem to reserve their judgments on the viability of the road, deigning to insist that it is not a civic ruin, but pointing people in the direction of assigning their own value to what has grown in its repose.  

Lilly McElroy’s assertion that the landscape can be a stage upon which artists work through their understanding of, and relationship with nature, is a great reason to gather the work of these artists from all over the country at La Esquina, and the work presented supports the premise. Additionally, I found these ideas useful to my own work as an artist. I have been photographing human spaces and structures in various states of building and decay, imagining them as representatives of the waves of development and abandonment within American cities, but also as reminders of rising and falling civilizations, even species. Though always critical of some of their ideas, in the past I’ve found much inspiration in the work of the Hudson River School painters, and McElroy’s metaphor of the landscape as a stage is just the right context to bring contemporary understanding to their impulses. Further, her premise makes me think of our built landscape as a place we as a culture act out the same histories, anxieties, and desires… further removed from the forest, but motivated by the same needs and fears.

Staging Ground runs through February 23rd, and closes with JE Baker’s presentation of Red Tide, a durational reading, from 12:00-5:00 pm on the 23rd.

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