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One does not often associate a walk in the park with experiencing contemporary art presented on security fences by way of large mesh tarps. But that’s just what you’ll find at Natural Disruptions, a collaborative mural-based project sponsored by public arts nonprofit Artbridge, currently on view in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Artists Mark Dorf and Anthony Goicolea were chosen for this project because of their ability to represent nature by manipulating images through technology. Each artist has his own way of altering photographs within the framework of landscape, by utilizing Photoshop and other software technologies.
Dorf typically inserts digital objects into his photographs, which suggest the formation of hybridized worlds that exist somewhere between nature and technology. His topographical imagery often helps to create different mental spaces than one might not expect in a landscape photograph — his final images are mechanical, space age, and radical, yet still somehow human. The viewer often comes upon new elements in his work accidentally, by chance and/or surprise.
Conversely, Goicolea deconstructs and reconstructs his photographs by re-layering, duplicating, and embedding elements of different images onto one another to create a simulated, reality-like composition. What may start off as a stock-looking image gradually transforms into transposed “reality.”
Prospect Park dates back to 1865, when Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began major work on it, just after completing their more laborious and bureaucratically intensive Central Park project. With fewer political restraints, Omstead and Vaux intended to make Prospect Park a work of art on its own terms. From the Long Meadow to Prospect Lake and all points in between, Olmsted and Vaux were determined to create an idyllic recreational space that would inspire the likes of great landscape painters John Constable and William Merritt Chase.
Over the years, the park has undergone many turbulent changes due to lack of funding, difficult socioeconomic times, and political wrangling. Today, the park thrives in its current state. Newish amenities include a band shell for concerts and ventures such as Smorgusburg at Breeze Hill. This modernized version may not be what Olmsted and Vaux had originally envisioned, but the park now serves as a naturally preserved environment within the context of an urban setting, catering to the vast variety of contemporary needs expressed by the diverse communities it serves.
Artbridge was able to tap into this legacy with Natural Disruptions, incorporating the beauty of the park as the backdrop for Dorf’s and Goicolea’s digitally manipulated photographs. In this way, the exhibition reminds us of the constant changes our city undergoes in the face of modernity.
I interviewed both artists for this piece, and each shared a belief that the project had created a refreshingly democratic public space for their works to be viewed, without the aura of a gallery setting that the NYC art world often subscribes to. Viewers can simply walk along the paths of the park and experience the art without the pressures of class, style, or financial status — hierarchical structures that are often associated with a typical gallery experience.
Goicolea’s description of his work revolved around metaphors of fantasy, discordance, and primal mark-making. I was struck by his astute and subtle understanding of the formal considerations related to the exhibition. He seemed to be channeling the different layers of landscape at his disposal, from the imagined to the surreal, much in the same way that Olmsted and Vaux probably envisioned the park in its planning stages. Goicolea also mentioned “sparking the fantasy of where one is in the moment,” which is consistent with Olmsted and Vaux’s grand vision for Prospect Park. Goicolea’s haunting and dreamy photomontages stir up feelings of vulnerability and isolation — emotions one might experience while walking alone in the park at dusk.
Furthermore, Goicolea’s conceptual approach prompts a negotiation from the viewer by creating a situation that discerns what is “real” from what is imagined and, ultimately, what really matters. Additionally, by experiencing his photographs alongside Dorf’s, I was able to compare these constructed worlds against a living, unhampered natural backdrop. I found myself visually toggling back and forth between the two artists’ images in relation to the park, which created a heightened sense of place in the moment.
Dorf, 25 years old, grew up in the vast beginnings of cyberspace. As a result, he has a deep understanding of alternate universes, both virtual and real, which he plays out in his photographs. He inserts things into his landscapes that seem at first glance to be normal, like a tree or mirror, but as one looks harder, it becomes less clear what one is actually seeing. During our conversation, I got the sense that Dorf feels just as comfortable in virtual space as he did sitting there in Prospect Park with me.
After our brief discussion in the park, we randomly met with a few recent college graduates who had come specifically to see the project, and I asked them what they thought of it. Their response emphasized a desire to experience contemporary art in a context that was different from the standard gallery setting, and that the park seemed to be the perfect place to do that. Dorf nodded his approval — the group had unknowingly echoed his desire for the work to be seen in a democratic, accessible space. He was happy to continue the conversation with these art appreciators, who proceeded to ask questions about his process and conceptual approach.
When I spoke with Goicolea, he mentioned that his photographs can be read as fact or digitized truths, as a result of his manipulations of them. He went on to explain that nothing can compete with the awesomeness of nature, so we are left to our own devices to create facts that are adapted to our everyday lives.
Similarly, Dorf had touched on the ontologically based discussion relating to harnessing nature in order create a zeitgeist of safe renewable energy that will change the way we think about and preserve our planet. I could easily see this narrative connection in his artwork as he framed raw nature with virtual digitized objects, in turn drawing our attention to the idea that reality in the future will undoubtedly involve the hybridization of nature and manmade phenomena, integrating them as seamlessly as possible.
Ultimately, Natural Disruptions keeps us engaged and immersed in the here and now. I think Olmsted and Vaux would approve of the project, as Prospect Park continues to bear out their vision of creating a public space that allows visitors to escape their everyday realities and ponder worlds yet undiscovered.
Natural Disruptions continues at the Wellhouse in Prospect Park (Brooklyn) through July.