Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime presents in its introductory text an intriguing proposition: “In a world overwhelmed by rapid technological advances, natural disasters, and a heightened sense of anxiety, it is still possible to find unexpected beauty.” Curated by New York photographer Joel Sternfeld and drawing on works from the Hall Art Foundation in Vermont, the exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery takes as its starting point the concept of the sublime in nature popular in the 19th century. For example, art critic John Ruskin saw nature as fully in charge, invoking awe or fear yet stirringly beautiful, and revealed in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. Including for reference an angry sea painted in Normandy by Gustave Courbet in 1869 (the Hall Collection’s “La vague” or “The Wave”), Sternfeld offered the 59 other works to demonstrate how more contemporary artists have updated the notion of the sublime in nature. Never mind that many trace the way humans are wreaking havoc on Earth, through terrorism or by provoking environmental damage. I took this exhibition as a challenge to participate in a roller-coaster ride of terror and grace, trying to find the beauty in these works.
“We’ve got to develop eyes for the landscape as it truly is; otherwise we’ll be alienated from it,” Sternfeld told me in an interview about the show, which was first staged at the Hall Art Foundation in 2016. “And if we’re alienated from the landscape, then we’ll be alienated from society and we will give up our reasons for caring about things and changing things.”
The 10 squat, black porcelain pieces of Ai Weiwei’s “Oil Spills (2006) sit squarely on the floor of the gallery’s first room. If thought of as crude waste, they might be considered ugly, but they are quite lovely when imagined as stepping stones. (A sign, warning visitors not to go there, squashes that temptation.) The artist made the sculpture during his residency in Jingdezhen, a region in China known for the production of porcelain, a national cultural treasure. These finely crafted oil puddles resemble a sky in reverse. Black clouds and a cobalt sliver of a moon are stuck to the ground in the upside-down world of environmental damage.
In folksy, open-brush strokes of gray, black, and beige, Gerhard Richter’s “Townscape” (1969), part of a series of nearly 50 cityscapes, renders a city, some city somewhere, but it’s impossible to tell which since the artist omitted telltale landmarks. Richter later allowed that a comparison with the World War II bombing of Dresden was apt. Despite all this, the balance of colors and the composition are pleasing to regard.
Christoph Draeger’s giant jigsaw puzzles “Hurricane Andrew” (2000) and “Pan Am 103” (2003) are part of a series: “The most beautiful disasters in the world,” whose ironic title suggests the contradictory nature of the sublime. Based on photos, these two paintings show the 1988 crash, triggered by terrorism, of Pan Am’s Flight 103 in Scotland, as well as the devastation of the 1992 hurricane in Florida that left 65 dead and destroyed coastal homes. A viewer might consider one calamity man-made and the other natural, but NYU environmental studies professor Dale Jamieson wrote in the show’s companion book, “Without humanity loading up the atmosphere with carbon, the hurricane might have been a tropical storm, followed a different track, or perhaps not existed at all.” Nonetheless, when inspected up close, these paintings reveal beautiful tints and delicate puzzle-piece patterning. This serves as a reminder that such tragedies remain puzzles that society is still trying to solve.
Carlos Motta’s 2004 blurry photos would not ordinarily be deemed beautiful, but their context confers on them a certain grace and meaning. “Public Domain #4,” #6, #9, and #14 document people visiting the World Trade Center towers site on pilgrimages to recall the victims of the 9/11 tragedy. Since these shots have been magnified, their subtle modulations of color evince some beauty. Yet Grey Gallery goers indirectly participate in the widespread post-9/11 activity of surveillance: monitoring disaster tourists via Motta’s images.
Dan Attoe’s painting “The End of the Day” (2008) is delightfully engaging in a dreamy, retro, Edward Hopper kind of way. But the specter is appalling if one considers the parking lot of cars shown — an assemblage of metal boxes on concrete, virtually the only landscape that many people encounter at the end of the workday. The scene is mostly dark and gray (though snow has fallen), with spurts of artificial yellow light where people have opened car doors.
Anselm Reyle’s “Strohballen” (Straw Bale) (2005) is a stark sculpture of chrome, straw, and varnish. This faux bale of hay might be the result if people forget their agrarian roots of working in harmony with nature — and the real kind of haystacks that inspired Claude Monet’s luminous Impressionist works vanish. After all, so much of the countryside and sustainable agriculture has disappeared in the postindustrial world. Nonetheless, Reyle’s verisimilitude is stunning, handsome in its artisanry.
Likewise, Tony Matelli’s sculpture offers hyper-realistic beauty. Plants of bronze, brass, and stainless steel seemingly sprout in four places along the gallery’s walls. After all, anything indoors that looks vaguely like the outdoors is welcome respite. Yet as the title makes clear, “Weed” (2006 and 2008) replicates the déclassé plants that are routinely uprooted by people. Context is everything. At least one spectator has been prompted to question her destructiveness.
Several large-scale representational landscape paintings, such as Eric Fischl’s “Scenes from Late Paradise, Stupidity” (2006―7) and Adam Adach’s “30 km. ensemble” (2003), bring moments of reverie, even while hinting at environmental damage or waste. Viewers will eventually be interrupted, though, by the surprising sound of someone straining at an aria but not quite reaching the right notes. The rude singing turns out to be part of Joel Sternfeld’s nearly 17-minute film “London Bridge,” 2016, projected in a back corner on the gallery’s lower level.
At first, glistening shots present what appears to be a singing gondolier in Venice, dressed in a striped shirt and straw hat. But then the film (without a spoken word) takes a less picturesque turn. Increasingly, he encounters batches of boorish, hard-partying tourists in bikinis or trunks, slugging beer to loud pop music. Their motorboats and debris encroach on the vistas of natural beauty. When eventually the gondolier picks up a man and a woman for a ride, they hardly seem to enjoy the scenery or relax; they bury themselves in heavy caresses. The show’s explanatory text explains that Sternfeld shot his footage at Arizona’s Lake Havasu, where a developer relocated the London Bridge, and the gondolier is an American.
This world of fakery, marred nature, and self-pleasuring is an exposé of the artificial environments many people increasingly inhabit on vacation, places stripped of their natural beauty with a homogenous “party town” atmosphere superimposed. This commercialized tourist culture is becoming ubiquitous, with adults amusing themselves in the same way everywhere, regardless of the place.
Similarly, in “Atmosphere” (1978), Neil Jenney painted the subtle gradations of a sunrise inside a window frame and absurdly labeled the sill with the artwork’s title. Today, so many experiences are artificially prepared for consumers; in a polluted world, a phony daybreak could be marketed to substitute for the wonder of a real one.
David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (Globe Head)” (1984) is a fitting synopsis of the show. He cleverly distorted a globe of the world to form the contours of a human head — much like how people have reworked the Earth to suit their own purpose. There’s a certain joy to be found in viewing this imaginative leap of design, but the eerie, red-rubber, gas-mask-like eyes signal the dire threat.
Later in life, Ruskin embraced environmentalism, worrying about humans’ impact on their surroundings. The show’s gift is the ray of hope that comes from seeing in each work a glimmer of beauty and a touch of human creativity that could offer a way out of this mess. Apply this exercise everywhere.
Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime is on display at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery until July 7.