Snagged Ensnares Human Behavior
Land Arts key practitioners — including Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer and James Turrell — pioneered an art form that outsized the capabilities of the paintbrush and invited nature to participate actively in the authorship of gesture. But although land arts reputation might touch on the politics of environmental awareness, its practice has often failed to bring the subject home to where people live.
Offering a window to the sky from the stark plains of Arizonas Painted Desert, James Turrells ongoing Roden Crater Project encourages a sacred alignment between the viewer (what few there have been) and the theater of the cosmos. Near Quemado, New Mexico, Walter de Marias Lightning Field contrasts transient meteorological effects — the rare but eponymous strikes of lightning the sculpture is designed to activate — against the stolidity of a steel grid. Michael Heizer reportedly greets whatever uninvited visitors might come to his fortress Nevada City with rifle fire. As these authors function in isolation as priest-keepers of their closed temples and uninhabited cities, land arts relationship with magnitude and time has turned it away from actual human experience of nature. In selecting unpopulated sites that communicate the romance of ruggedness and the machismo of austerity for posterity, these same artists have obviated any meaningful commentary on the intersection between our country and backcountry. One could even say that land art 40 years since it first struck out for the West comes with a level of anguish and even, futility, that makes the angst-ridden Abstract Expressionists resemble paint-flecked players in a fashion shoot.
In contrast to these practices, Snagged, a show of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at El Paso Rubin Center, constitutes a trenchant examination of the human impact on a specific environment: the Rio Grande Valley. The project–an indoor installation spearheaded by Sarah Cowles of the Berkeley-based landscape architecture firm Tom Leader Studio–reflects a recent trend, that shifts the focus of contemporary land art towards advancing effective critiques of land use. To generate the show, on-site research examining the natural and constructed landscapes of the Rio Grande Valley was conducted by Cowless students at Ohio State University in conjunction with architect Alan Smart, and students and faculty of UTEP.
Snagged underscores the grim cultural and aesthetic repercussions of an issue as pressing to inhabitants of Ohios verdant plains as to those accustomed to New Mexicos flinty austerity: each day the average American expends roughly 100 gallons of water.
Hovering roughly three feet from the floor, the installations centerpiece (a suspended gabion-like structure shaped into a winged V) evokes the scale and structure of canals that divert water from not only the Rio Grande River, but also from suburban developments and shopping malls–a task co-opted from disappearing desert arroyos. Recalling both river sediment and the detritus of processes used to extract local resources for industry, unprocessed cotton spools from the sculptures gridded apertures.
In addition to reifying the dichotomy between the industrial and organic, Snagged integrates international politics into the scope of its examinations through the use of an audio component. The exhibitions four-channel sound installation by John Also Bennett interweaves elements of human presence from both sides of the US-Mexico border, where screeching machinery muffles the solemn tones of traditional native dances. The abrasive percussion of jackhammers, trains groaning, the trill of video games, and the whirr of cash registers register the desert as a site whose transforming cultural and economic infrastructures perpetually impel and mirror its physical alterations.
Also on view at the Rubin Center, Celebrity: A Photographic Legacy from the Andy Warhol Foundation continues the venues focus on significant exhibitions informed by student participation. Adding useful contextualization to a rigorously curated selection of celebrity photographs donated on the occasion of the Andy Warhol Foundations 20th Anniversary, the exhibitions wall texts benefit from the participation of student researchers who convincingly trace the relationship between Warhols work and life. Just as timely as Snagged, this exhibition coincides with a market that upholds Warhol as no less of a celebrity than the subjects of this exhibition. Case in point: the $43.8 million sale of the artists 200 One-Dollar Bills at Sothebys in November.