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
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.