By DONALD KUSPIT, April, 2018
When Kandinsky dispensed with the haystack in one of Monet’s paintings of it, dismissing it as beside the point of its color and form, and with that purifying painting—ridding art of the dross of nature—it seemed that painting nature became declassé. Art was inherently superior to nature: “low down” nature was beside the “higher” point of art. Viewed from the transcendental heights of art, nature no longer seemed to have been created by God, and thus lost its sacredness and became profane, leaving art with a monopoly on sacredness, suggesting that the creative artist was a kind of god. For God had the power to create, which is inherently sacred, as the pure artist believed he was. Nietzsche said that God died in the 19th century, but it was really nature that had died, as Carolyn Merchant argued in The Death of Nature, while God lived on in the form of the pure artist.
But it seems impure nature is making a serious comeback in art, as the contemporary nature paintings of Eric Aho, Peter Doig, Ray Kass, Robert Kushner, Susan Shatter, Darren Waterston, and Neil Welliver, among others indicates. There has been a recent rush of recognition of 19th century nature painting, as though in recognition of the fact that nature was less polluted then than it is today, and seemingly as fresh and new and original as it was on the day that God created it (and before He perversely poisoned it by creating human beings). This is the way the Rocky Mountains and the Alps seem to be in the paintings of Bierstadt and Calame currently on view at the Newark Museum, the way the Adirondack Mountains seem to be in the paintings of the Hudson River School currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the way the “Landscapes After Ruskin” currently on view at New York University’s Grey Gallery seem to be. Nature was preserved alive in 19th century landscape painting, as Edmond and Jules Goncourt realized when, in 1855, they celebrated Barbizon School landscape painting as a “resurrection” of nature—a new “Easter of the eyes.”
In New York City the Rainforest Art Foundation, established by James and Marlene Yu in Queens, is the only art institution devoted exclusively to exhibiting works engaging and celebrating nature in all its manifestations and with every kind of artistic means. In the current exhibition six women artists responsively engage it. Eva Csanyi-Hurskin’s pencil drawings of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos and Blue Gold Macaws and Grace Ge’s watercolors of Flowers convey nature’s reality with exquisite means. To my mind’s eye their works are portraits, for the birds and the flowers are highly individualized, to the extent that each seems to have a personality of its own, a distinct identity however much they form a family. They are nature at its most colorful and radiant, precious and innocent: nature at its glorious best, nature before the fall, nature when it was a garden of paradise. Each of their works is in effect a flourishing hortus conclusus, as the lush green leaves that surround the fauna and flora, all children of paradise, suggests. Their works are more than descriptive masterpieces; they convey the inherent beauty of undefiled nature—the refinement in its rawness--and as such are spiritually enlightening. Their aliveness and gracefulness inoculate us against death and decay. They seem immune from suffering, and with that everlasting.
Trees Are Sanctuaries, Ilse Schreiber-Noll tells us, but also hadean ghosts—shadowy presences, abstract remnants of a ruined nature. A Sturm und Drang expressionist, as The Storm makes clear, Schreiber-Noll seems to show nature in its death throes, agonized beyond recovery. She says that her trees are “symbols of hope, new beginnings, regeneration and the promise of protecting our forests for the next generations,” but her forest is very black, her trees are charred fragments of nature. There is no sanctuary in them, only suffering. “Save the Dream/Save the Planet,” the elaborate text that accompanies her trees declares, but it is only a dream, never to become a reality, as the nightmarish trees suggest. I see angry futility in Schreiber-Noll’s works, which seems an appropriate response to the neglect of nature, even indifference to its plight, and unawareness of the fact that its death is ours.
Silke Konschak’s Water seems subliminally optimistic—it’s the water of life, however muddy and murky, as her gestural handling suggests—compared to Schreiber-Noll’s pessimistic trees: there is hope for nature, however much there is despair. Konschak’s Under And Up The Ground, a tour de force installation of black X-Ray negatives painted with colorful forms and luminous gestures, all uncannily evocative of nature—some seem like flora, some like fauna, some ambiguously both—reminds us that nature is in endlessly generative process, one form spontaneously mutating into another. The forms are lyrical, the work as a whole is epic, the blackness of the X-Ray plates suggestive of the blackness of infinite space, the colorful and eccentrically abstract living forms so many eerie constellations in the night sky.
Konschak’s X-Ray installation convincingly integrates abstract art and nature imagery, as does, in a more thoroughly gestural way, and with great sensitivity to texture, Helga Schuhr’s Blurry Roots, Lakeside III, and Sandbanks III. Schuhr has a feel for surface; texture seems an end in itself in her works. Her gestures restlessly move, sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly, depending on the unconscious current that informs them—the nature that Schur’s unconscious is attuned to—to form a porous surface, its luminous open spaces strangely deep. Her gestural roots—her art is rooted in restless gesture, intimate and lingering and sometimes grand, as though infinitely extending, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, its energy carefully measured out--hang from the wall, giving them monumental presence, turning them to into idols of an unknown god.
If Schreiber-Noll’s nature has a tragic presence, Maria Faba Fouret’s Rainforest is peculiarly comic, as the frogs that sit in its pond and the birds that sit on its leaves suggests. Its spiky leaves are figures of fun, confirming that for Fouret the Rainforest is a kind of funhouse in which all kinds of flora and fauna breed and flourish. The air of delight in Fouret’s work suggests that she thinks the idea of the death of nature is overblown.
It seems noteworthy that all the artists in the exhibition are women, suggesting that women care for nature more than men do, and that men alone are responsible for its exploitation and devastation, that is, for the rape of Mother Nature. WM
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author