Ellen Harvey, “Room of Sublime Wallpaper II” (2008) (Courtesy of the artist, photo by Jan Baracz)

Despite that night’s snow storm, tough cookies crowded the Austrian Cultural Forum to near capacity for Alpine Desire’s opening reception, a new exhibition on view at the Forum. The wine was gone by 7 PM, but people even endured past that point, maybe not wanting to brave the weather. Examining mountain imagery in contemporary art, as well as a few earlier modernist and romanticist paintings, the show won over its audience not only by exhibiting picturesque (and relatively safe) postcard-like views, but also by presenting evocations of our darker and quirkier interactions with mountains.

Margherita Spiluttini, “Erzberg” (1995) (Courtesy of the artist) (click to enlarge)

“We didn’t just do a pretty mountain show,” remarked co-curator William Stover. The stereotype of the quaint mountain weighed on the minds of both the curators and the artists participating in the show. The impulse to critique and poke holes in this cliché was the motivating force in most of the works on view.

Take Margherita Spiluttini’s large scale 1995 photograph “Erzberg,” which depicts a quarried and evacuated mountain. Erzberg mountain rises 5030 feet above Austria with a famous quarry burrowed into its side. Spiluttini’s sharp and detailed technique — reminiscent of the work of Edward Burtynsky — finds formal appeal in the spiral of a quarry’s dirt road, the rich muddy browns of barren soil, and the rolling green forest of the untouched neighboring hills. This rape of the land looks so chillingly (and inappropriately?) gorgeous. I assume the paradox is the point.

Herbert Boeckl, “Erzberg V” (1948) (click to enlarge)

Fifty years earlier, Herbert Bockel painted the same quarried mountain in a fauvist idiom “Erzberg V” (1948). Seeing this modernist painting set beside a recent photograph of the same subject is a smart curatorial juxtaposition. Viewers unaware of the mountain’s mining history might just categorize the orange splotches on the summit’s left side as colorful embellishments or golden light. But as Spiluttini work clarifies, it is land stripped bare and naked from mining.

Ellen Harvey’s 2008 installation “Room of the Sublime Wallpaper II” is a room plastered with wallpaper depicting mountain vistas. One wall is further decorated with small mirrors that reflect fragments of the wallpaper’s alpine imagery. It’s spectacular to walk around the room and watch the mountain reflections morph and warp on the various mirrors.

While this is not in the show, it is a typical 18th-C English “Claude Glass”, which inspired Ellen Harvey’s work (via vam.ac.uk)

An antiquated device, the Claude Glass partially inspired Harvey’s mirror games. Eighteenth-century thrill seekers would turn their back to a beautiful view and gaze into this strange darkened mirror contraption. Its softly distorted and sepia tinged reflections of the landscape would reassemble something like the golden hues of a Claude Lorrain landscape. Although the connection is not glaringly explicit, it is nevertheless intriguing to savor the splendor of distortion and fragmentation of the mountain reflections, rather than the original thing itself.

In our conversation about striking a balance between form that captivates the eyes and content that fires up the mind, Ellen Harvey remarked that you “have to seduce people into thinking. You can’t just hit people over the head with a hammer.” Her entrancing work playfully seduces the viewer into an unfamilar and distorted gaze — revealing other modes of seeing the mountain far beyond the literalism of photography.

Koloman Moser, “Berggipfel im Schnee” (1907), oil on canvas, 14.2 x 19.3 in. (click to enlarge)

The show is rounded out by some earlier vista paintings. Kolomon Moser’s “Berggipfel im Schnee” from 1907 shows a mountain during a period better known for Art Nouveau subjects. Light purple hues stretch across the sky, descending into yellows on the horizon line; snowy mountains sit below. After art that reveals hidden tyrannies or raises other complex cultural hermeneutics, it is refreshing to return to a work that is so shamelessly and unabashedly decorative.

By interspersing contemporary art with works from the 19th and early 20th century, the show revives the tradition of the “Gentleman’s or Prince’s Hang,” though some call it the “Connoisseur’s Hang.” Aristocrats in the 18th century enjoyed rooms tightly hung with paintings of the same subject from various hands and periods. These stark juxtapositions allowed viewers to appreciate and distinguish the subtle nuances of different styles, artists, and epochs. They also suggested that the collector had refinement and was a “man of breeding.”

Jumping from mountain to mountain at Alpine Desire is like imagining yourself a bee partaking in various flowers: the thrill is in the cross-pollination. The vistas of the romantics and moderns feel like a light-hearted escape from headier postmodern works. Primed by all the emphasis on a nice view, one can appreciate the sublime irony of dark and strange activities in the alpine shadows. Though I will suggest that perhaps it’s time to rename the “Gentleman’s Hang” something cooler.

Alpine Desire will be on view at the Austrian Cultural Forum, 11 West 52nd Street, until May 8, 2011.

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