Wanderers above a sea of smog (Katrina Van Tassel Projects)

Katrina Van Tassel Projects presents:

Wanderers above a sea of smog
A painting exhibition curated by Christian Ruiz Berman
Aug 9- Sept 1
Opening Saturday, August 9, 6pm-10pm

Featuring the work of 

Sophia Narrett
Colette Robbins
Giordanne Salley
Andrew Woolbright

In 1818, the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich painted “Wanderer above a sea of fog,” perhaps his most iconic and well-known work. In the painting, a young man stands atop a rocky escarpment, surveying an untamed and craggy landscape of forest and rocky mountains. The painting is emblematic of the Romantic movement in art and philosophy, which sought to espouse and examine the sublime; a reunion with the spiritual self through the contemplation of nature. The landscape of the romantics was not the safe, organized, and tamed garden of classical civilization; it contained danger, raw power, mystery. The scenes in Friedrich’s paintings are ones of Kantian self-reflection, expressed through the wanderer's gazing into the foggy unknown. The wanderer’s stance is contradictory, suggesting at once dominion over the landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. Friedrich explained the need for the artist to match natural observation with an introspective scrutiny of his own personality. In one essay, Friedrich advises the artist to "close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards." He rejected the overreaching portrayals of nature in its "totality", and presaged our 21st century understanding that human emotion and action are indivisible from the uncontrollable forces of nature. As wilderness has become increasingly conquered and abstracted in physical terms, it has never loomed larger in our own psyche. 

Painting as a practice has long been entangled with humanity’s relationship to the wilderness. The earliest known petroglyphs and cave paintings are, in the most basic terms, an attempt to externalize and record an emotional connection to the power and mystery of the wild. As an act of expression, painting itself carries elements of our wild beginnings. As many artists have expressed, the moment we explain or write down an idea, we flatten it – we take it out of the wild, and place it in a room. Painting allows for ideas to be transmitted freely, poetically, and in a direct manner- a visual and manual exercise that is akin to the act of walking though a forest or meadow. Forays into nature allow for fascination and surprise, and most of all a type of involuntary attention to the rich variety of one’s surroundings that is not as commonplace in everyday urban life. While exploring the wild, we de-stress from the required attention and scheduled tasks of working life. Our psychological connection to nature has evolved as our species moved from the trees, to the savannah, to villages, to towns, and finally to network of civilization that has left few places untouched or unmapped. In terms of biological evolution, this shift in human experience has happened over a relatively short amount of time. Our genes and our collective memories still contain the awe, respect and fear of the wild unknown that kept our ancestors alive. 

In 1977, Gene Rosselini walked into the Alaskan wilderness as part of a fateful experiment. Rosselini, obsessively organized, physically trained, and knowledgeable of basic survival skills, wanted to deduce whether it was possible for a modern human to live as a hunter-gatherer. Rosselini lived off of berries, trapped game, and plants, and managed to survive the Alaskan winters using only stone tools. At the end of his Alaskan sojourn, shortly before committing suicide in his hovel for unknown reasons, he wrote 

“I began my adult life with the hypothesis that it would be possible to become a Stone Age native. For over 30 years, I programmed and conditioned myself to this end. In the last 10 of it, I would say I realistically experienced the physical, mental, and emotional reality of the Stone Age. But to borrow a Buddhist phrase, eventually came a setting face-to –face with pure reality. I learned that it is not possible for human beings as we know them to live off the land.”

As every corner of the planet became documented and explored, the looming backdrop of the wilderness, onto which we could project our desires and fears, slowly faded. Rosselini’s experiment, which ended in the late 80’s, coincides with a growing sense that humanity had moved far beyond our ancient ties with the wild; and with a realization that a Romantic idealization of nature as a place to rediscover oneself might have been a naïve dream. Even intrinsically nature-related art, such as the land art movement of the 70’s, became focused not as much on our personal and emotional connections to the wild, but instead on a broader understanding of landscape as a concept. Urban centers like New York began to re-establish a new and central identity, and as wilderness disappeared, environmental protection dominated the discourse on nature. By the end of the 20th century, the canvas, itself an empty landscape, faded from prominence- as the power of the physical landscape declined and became politicized. In the 21st century, the untamed wilderness has become a lost fantasy and a symbol of a past reality; and as such, has regained, through nostalgic and mythological power, its connection to our emotional desires and expressions. Even as environmental action and “green” practices have become consolidated and commonplace, wild nature continues to disappear. The frustration, resignation, and anxiety associated with the seemingly unstoppable growth of manufactured civilization have changed our emotional link to what we perceive and value as wild. What we see in this body of work, and in the works of many other contemporary artists, is a return to painting in a way that connects the internal universe to the external unknown. This is an internalization of the concept of contemporary wilderness- a pictorial exploration of a psychological link with a forest, still strong in it’s symbolic power, but no longer removed from human stewardship. 

This is a body of work that could only exist in our current timeframe; there is no idealization of nature here- no separation between pure wilderness and human concerns. However, as environmentalism fails, and humanity seems at times to be heading for complete catastrophe, the power of nature has gained a renewed presence. Interestingly, these artists grew up in a suburban American landscape that is being partially repopulated by the wild- in a world where trees have regrown into large properties, deer wander the streets, and coyotes and bears prowl at night. With the restructuring of the environment has come a strange and new cohabitation- one that forces us to both reconsider our place within the natural order, and also to reconnect with the palpable codependence with nature that our ancestors experienced. These paintings are not merely invented fantasies; in fact we see a deep physical connection with a natural world that is both present and powerful. The parallels between Friedrich’s 19th century world and ours are palpable; human progress has again led us to the brink of the unknown. Unlike the time of the Romantics, the physical wilderness of plants and animals, mountains and trees, has been largely tamed. However, the precariousness of our habitation on the planet still speaks of the universe’s indelible power and chaos. We stand on the edge of a new connection to the environment- and accept ourselves as partly controlling the fate of immediate nature. We find the magic, mystery, and freedom of the untamed wild in our exploring minds- still inextricably built to process life through the mirror of wilderness. Whether civilization continues to tame the unknown, or we are thrown back cataclysmically into the Stone Age- this question may hinge on our philosophies, the intimate knowledge of ourselves, and our ability to understand and control human emotion. 

Digital Skins (Katrina Van Tassel Projects)

Katrina Van Tassel Projects Presents:
Curated by Christian Ruiz Berman

Featuring work by:
Jon Blank 
Leopold Masterson 
Kris Scheifele

Show runs from July 17- Aug 7
34 1st st. Ny Ny 

“The skin is a boundary, a border or dividing point, the last point to be able to add, subtract, divide, multiply, cancel everything around us, the last point, container and contained, able to envelop physically vast areas. Mobility enables man to contain a large quantity of things with his skin in different, continuous periods with contact, impression, consciousness, discovery, grasp, repulsion, actions which are a continuous development or unrolling of one’s own skin against other things or on itself.” -Giuseppe Penone, 1970

This show highlights the work of three artists who tackle the interplay of concrete vs. digital identity. Jon Blank, Leopold Masterson and Kris Scheifele transcend the boundaries of medium, arriving at work that speaks concisely and compellingly about the fragmentation and reinvention of the self in the digital age. The works in this exhibition are fresh and inventive, but also reference and re-examine ancient forms and materials. Here, we encounter a clear and palpable link to the myth-weaving and monument-making of classical antiquity. Visual cues and material processes place us in the age of facebook and 3D printing, and from this complex vantage point we are asked to ponder the evolution of the heroic narrative. All three artists are concerned with the physical annotation and translation of emotional information within the context of a wired society. Although much of the ideological and material concept is drawn from interactions with the digital world, the emotional and personal impact that these artists produce would not be possible without the physicality and personal touch that is ingrained in these handcrafted avatars. 

In Jon Blank’s Monuments, the line between real and illusionistic space is obscured, and three dimensionality is continually lost and re-found. The deceptive forms perpetually elude capture, simulating the constantly mutating relationship with our own online presence . The Monoliths actualize the digital space found in architecture and design programs, where flat space is given the illusion of dimensionality through digitally rendered surfacing. The different techniques used to cover these monoliths are all appropriated from the internet; with sources as varied as artist’s websites, painting tutorials, car finishing techniques, or collaborations with artist friends whose marks are distinguished or idiosyncratic. These pseudo monuments feign to immortalize the ephemeral nature of the internet by inscribing public personal information about the artist. This type of information could be considered banal or unimpressive, yet we are constantly captivated by it on social media. The specific information that is trolled for (“because you liked,” “highly recommended,” etc) has been automatically collected by public websites or social networking programs that Blank is currently active on, and reconfigured to create a simulation of the artist’s “being.” In Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual piece “Printing out the Internet,” the artist invites anyone to print out the infinite realm of information stored online. This may be an absurd task, but in absurdity there is sometimes truth- perhaps truth that is not yet understood. When looking through one’s own “public personal information,” one can scrutinize the most seemingly unimportant data, triggering memories and psychoanalytical thought. A stranger may only see the avatar in this jumble of information, a collection of likes and interests, and miss the reasons why these qualifications have come to exist. An online surfer may also find commonality in weeding through another’s interests. At times, they may find information and think, “I like that,” or “we should be friends?” On the other hand, in the possession of a corporation or government that is vying for our information, we are left exposed and vulnerable. In an age where privacy is no longer a cherished ideal, we have been relegated to a place where our “self" has become the product. 

Leopold Masterson has many different avatars, personas, and/or nom de plumes. His practice as a visual artist is also that of a merchant of antiquity. At the moment, Lee is working for an Egyptologist in Italy, as well as an Italian renaissance jewelry dealer. The versatility of Lee’s persona is part and parcel of an era where one is able to create a plethora of identities and avatars. Masterson not only deftly navigates these invented personae, he also fills varied (and at times contradictory) roles in his everyday physical life. The work thus becomes not only a meditation on the transience of life, but also a celebration of a flexible identity. Alongside existentialism and the plurality of media in contemporary society, Masterson looks to Marx as he relates to the socialization and inevitable uses of design as a means of amassing a larger ideological movement. Lee’s work nods at everyone from the contemporary art circuit, to the Grecians, to artisans of oldest antiquity. Within this nexus of influences and ideologies, Masterson creates his own histories and personal narratives. From a maker’s standpoint, he frequently contemplates the psycho-biographical model of human development, as he feels that we are all influenced by our individual psychologies, as well as the biologic and sociologic reality we develop in. The pieces in this show speak to the imprinting and subsequent decay of information, and to the literal and figurative skins that contain our beings. Masterson states. “Having grown up in the mid-west, I am not unaware of trends, both as content and material, on the objects that I produce. The medium is the message, as Marshall Mcluhan famously stated, and reading that simple statement I have not been able to see art as too much more. I have made a ceramic vase that is printed upon, and a ceramic banana. The vessel (amphora) is not made to contain, and the sustenance cannot nourish. We live in a time where we want the ephemeral to be forever and the archival to be a gentle temporal breeze. I play in the space between.”

Kris Scheifele’s “fade” series is an emotionally charged and idiosyncratic body of work. Scheifele uses gradations created by subtle color shifts between built-up layers of acrylic paint. Referring to film and video editing, the fade is a transitional device starting or ending a scene or crossfading between scenes. Everything ends: the 'good,' the 'bad,' the moments in between. What the word 'fade' connotes is a matter of perspective. This work reflects on cycles in life as well as cycles in art. The material focus of Scheifele’s recent artistic practice has been on the physicality of paint via time-intensive process. After about thirty layers of acrylic paint are applied to a wooden panel support—then permanently pulled up from it—these sheets of paint are sliced, carved, and/or peeled. After being attached directly to the wall with nails, gravity pulls on the paint continuing to change each piece. Not only is a temporal record created by the accumulation of layers, but also by the paint sagging, stretching, and bending over time. This elasticity brings to my mind the body and skin- emphasizing the sentient and corporeal in our age of digital dematerialization. The aestheticized decay, created by cutting out oval chips with a box-cutter, suggests the moth-eaten, rot, or fire damage. We are reminded of both the temporal and the timeless; the fragility of the self and also the undying power of a beautiful object. These are works that call into question our very sense of self. They bring to mind stretched animal hides, the golden fleece, the emperor’s new coat. 

Katrina Van Tassel Projects is a curatorial endeavor in the LES by Christian Ruiz Berman and Katherine Chapman