By DAN CAMERON January, 2023
Some first-time viewers of the photographs of Carolyn Marks Blackwood, which are on view at Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles through January 21, might be understandably confused about what they’re looking at. The intensity of her colors, the synchronicity of the visual patterns in her compositions, and their close visual kinship with the long history of lyrical abstract painting all conspire to deflect our attention from the fact that these are essentially photographs of moving water. In fact, they have all been taken at the same basic location, near the artist’s home on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River from its east bank, a hundred miles north of New York City.
Although “Water Water Everywhere,” the title of her exhibition, makes the connection with her subject clear, the notion that a single body of water, seen from a fixed vantage point, can produce such variety of visual pleasure might come as a surprise for us, in part because no previous artist has attempted precisely what Blackwood is doing. Of course, there’s no shortage of artists who have used the sea or the beach as their primary subject, from Winslow Homer to Hiroshi Sugito. What’s strikingly different about Blackwood’s approach is her explicit focus on changing light and color patterns, leading her to crop her photographs so as to eliminate any sense of vertical or horizontal location. While we can be fairly certain that our own body’s position in front of framed images on the wall is not the same position the artist was in when she pressed the shutter, the absence of a visual context for her images leaves us stranded, in the best possible way.
These works arrive at a historical moment of heightened collective awareness of the grave danger caused by our species’ uninhibited exploitation and extraction of the planet’s riches. Although the connection between this new sense of environmental urgency and Blackwood’s art might not be obvious, such links become clearer once we begin to fully appreciate the extent to which water flows at the heart of our imbalanced relationship to the planet: rising sea levels, floods, melting glaciers, and salinization of potable water sources on one side of an equation, with drought, famine, desertification and fires on the other. In fact, the magnitude of the situation is so overwhelming that it’s easy to not know where to focus one’s attention — a conundrum that Blackwood’s photographs address with understated simplicity. Look at what’s right in front of your eyes, they seem to say, and keep looking until you arrive at a deeper understanding of what you’re really seeing.
Blackwood’s ongoing task of shaping our field of visual perception when it comes to nature calls to mind the challenges faced by her neighbor from twenty-five miles upriver and two centuries in the past: the painter Thomas Cole, widely celebrated as the father of the Hudson River School of painting. Born in England, Cole came to his subject from a position of what we would call environmental activism long after his transformative first encounter with the Catskill Mountains, which were to become his signature theme. Through his ties to Europe, Cole was well-versed in the English and French developments in landscape painting that would soon become the Romantic movement, but his point of view was considerably different than his peers, who saw nature as a transcendent escape from modern life. Distressed by signs of the Industrial Revolution encroaching on the wilderness near his Catskill, NY home and studio, over time Cole’s paintings became dotted by minuscule details — a tanning factory, a distant plume of locomotive smoke — that hinted at the devastation he’d witnessed directly as a young man before emigrating to the U.S. Unless otherwise prompted, most viewers of Cole’s work today don’t spot those details, so accustomed are we to a world in which the concept of wilderness is increasingly inaccessible.
Given that there are important distinctions between landscape paintings in which tiny details reveal the true story, and photographs that are effectively enlargements of real-life details, what both examples share is the clear need to adjust our awareness of what we’re seeing to accommodate the realities of a changing world. The examples of Cole and Blackwood also help clarify that few challenges are as daunting to a visual artist as the effort to capture nature’s essence within a single frame. The most serious obstacle, implied in the very notion of what constitutes the essence of a subject, is that nature is all-encompassing, to such a degree that we humans may actually lack the mental capacity to conceive of nature as something outside ourselves. Nonetheless, because nature exists in our minds as the ultimate meta-category that contains all other topics within itself, it’s easy to appreciate why artists seek alternatives to evoking nature by reflexively exalting its magnitude and majesty. Blackwood’s closeups, which could serve as a a reminder of Heraclitus’s adage that one never enters the same river twice, capture the essence of a nature that we struggle to truly perceive, even when it is right in front of our eyes. WM
Beginning with Extended Sensibilities (1982) his groundbreaking New Museum exhibition on LGBTQ art, for more than forty years NYC-based curator and writer Dan Cameron has combined an independent practice with senior curatorial positions at museums, including the New Museum, CAC New Orleans and Orange County Museum of Art. Along with publishing hundreds of museum, book and magazine texts on contemporary art, he has personally organized more than a hundred museum exhibitions, including retrospectives of Martin Wong, David Wojnarowicz, William Kentridge, Faith Ringgold, Cildo Meireles, Carolee Schneemann, Carroll Dunham, Peter Saul, and Paul McCarthy, among others. He has served as artistic director for numerous international biennials, including Istanbul, Taipei, Kansas City and Cuenca, Ecuador. In 2007, Dan founded Prospect New Orleans, the contemporary art triennial to benefit the city after Hurricane Katrina, and was the artistic director of its first two editions. His exhibition, Liminal: Leandro Erlich, is currently on view at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) through September 4, 2023view all articles from this author