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Landscape: Theme and Variations

           In the edgy art world of the early 21st century, one might assume that “landscape” – as artistic subject matter – could still rank as it once did in the hierarchy of 17th century French Salon painting – listed, as it was, second to last. Then, it barely exceeded still-life and vignettes of ordinary life (demeaningly called les petites genres) in the French Academy’s measure of its ultimate importance. Only history paintings which “conceal under the veil of fable the virtues of great men, and the most exalted mysteries” [1] could win the Academy’s highest praise. For these French elite, all that was immediately accessible and common, all that comprised the “ordinary” – ubiquitous nature from which all landscapes come, still lifes which celebrate the quiet beauty of everyday objects, the truly ephemeral events of anonymous lives – was assigned, without dispute, to the inconsequential.

            Five hundred years of human cultural evolution have passed since the judgments of the French Academy. In the reality-driven, street-infused cultural “academy” of our day, it could be argued that the terms of the hierarchy have been turned on their head. In an economically-globalizing world, where wealthy nations battle to control and exploit the earth’s most basic, and finitely dwindling, resources (water, forests, proprietorship over medicinal plants, oil, coal, clean air, the human work force), where the melting pot of cultures forced upon us by a sustenance-driven diaspora brings us face to face in our passionate disagreements over God and the codes of moral deportment each version of Him brings, as witnesses to the now measurable melting of our polar caps and the palpable shift to the stresses of a hotter climate triggered by global warming, we are a human world that can, no longer, take anything for granted. The ordinary has, quite simply, become edgy.

            Nature – defined, in part, as “the inherent or essential quality or constitution of a thing” [2]  – is surely the deepest root of “the ordinary”, encompassing, as it does, the mystery of a world that was here when each of us was born and will remain when each of us has gone. Influence it as we may, dissect it as we must, transform it, improve it, dismantle it, reconstruct it, learn from it, teach it, strive to understand it, separate ourselves from it, submit to it – no matter where we stand or what we do, nature is and it contains us.

            Our own century’s unique and lasting impact on this deep ordinariness promises to be the code-breaking realities of genetic research. If nothing else, this research provokes questions and concerns regarding an, as of yet, unchallenged mainstay of our historic relationship to nature, i.e. our unending, and final, domination by it. Though genetic decoding may fall short of meeting its own bold promises, still, our expectation that the immutable life-code we believe invents us – that makes us who we are – may soon become yet another tool at our disposal, pressurizes our most basic sense of reality. Will we, at last, turn the tide and dominate  “nature” – elementally and irrevocably – at its very root? 

            The seventeen artists whose work comprises,(name of the show), are citizens of this same microcosmically-pressurized world. The variety of work they create realizes and releases a multiplicity of voices that, together, constitute the speech of contemporary landscape. For, when all is said and done, any landscape is a portrait of its specific moment in time – in the long lineage that is human history. Without the “frame” of our self-reflection, all-encompassing nature would continue to be without desire for, or recourse to, an introspection we so crave. In the words of Malcolm Andrews, from Landscape and Western Art,  “Landscape ... is mediated land, land that has been aesthetically processed. It is land that has arranged itself, or has been arranged by the artistic vision, so that it is ready to sit for its portrait. But how do we know when it is ready to sit for its portrait?”[3]

– Mary Cecile Ge

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[1] Wikipedia [database online], ed. Jimmy Wales & Larry Sanger (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 30 July 2005, accessed 31 July 2005); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierarchy_of_genres; Internet.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary [database online], (Oxford University Press, 2005, accessed  27 July 2005); available from http://dictionary.oed.com; Internet.

[3] Malcolm Andrews, Landscape and Western Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 7.