by Patrick Marcoux
A landscape painting or photograph never really mirrors nature. And was never intended to. It's like some 18th century portrait painting where the sitter is all dolled up just for the occasion-- in their fanciest clothes, with their finest jewelry. Landscape depictions also tend to have very particular reasons for being--stories to tell about an expanse of nature, like all this is mine, or this place has the innocence we lack in the city, or this is the bounty of Westward Expansion. And for the most part, these messages seem to have been absorbed and reinvested over the centuries, along with the preferred angles and lighting conditions for making pictures that are landscapes.
It takes a disturbance in this familiar terrain to reinvigorate our ways of looking; to reposition our normative relationship to the pervasive panorama. I've been examining with these kinds of disturbances and these norms, as I've been talking with Los Angeles-based artist Ryan Taber. His research-intensive method draws from a cross-section of surveyors, artists, architects, filmmakers, and monomaniacs throughout history, who contributed to the canonical practices we have come to know as landscape. His sculpture, drawings, and paintings have addressed cultural objects reaching from the "split-screen" windshield of the Volkswagen "camper" buses, back to Piranesi's 18th century engravings--perhaps the primordial Romance of ruins. With a nod to Foucault, landscape imagery is considered as a time-honored institution... which means it's an ideological discourse with roots in domination.
Taber's project emphasizes that some of the most luminous pictures of nature are implicated in social and political life. Take, for example, a graphite study Taber made of the 19th century Western North American landscape painter Thomas Moran's monumental painting "Chasm of the Colorado." In Taber's drawing, the Grand Canyon's self-evident layers of geological history gape in all their Moran-framed glory, with one point of disturbance. In the lower left foreground, Moran had rendered just enough of the edge of a cliff that the viewer could almost walk out on it, and peer down into the canyon. In Taber's study, this foreground area is inhabited by an assembled animal skeleton leaning on a small tree, like an escapee from a natural history museum display. Just from looking at the skeleton, you know about as much as Thomas Jefferson did, when he first took an interest in the discovery of this partial skeleton. Early on, the animal those bones belonged to was identified by Jefferson as an "unknown quadruped, of the clawed kind." He then represented it as a sabretooth tiger. Turns out it was actually the skeleton of a giant ground sloth.
The drawing's hypertextual conflation aligns the instrumentalization of Moran's painting--which would be used to sell the idea of National Park reserves to Congress as tourist traps for Westward Expansion--and Jefferson's interest in the fossil record--intended to stir an emerging nationalism by framing the archeological character of the American continent as fierce and noble, to rival Europe. Both the scientific and aesthetic aspects of these events are captured and implicated in each other as Romantic sublime portrayals of the pedigree of a young nation. So in Taber's project, the recurrences across historical instances-- like Moran's painting and Jefferson's conjecture-- fall into something like the same order in a distinctive classification system.
But as expansive a historical perspective as Taber takes, it is reverse-engineered from the ways that Romantic landscape surfaces in contemporary times. I've recently accompanied Taber to some of the nature reserves outlying Los Angeles. But it wasn't until we drove north into the Angeles National Forest that I started trying to make sense of why he's been rock climbing, lately. Not the 'extreme' stuff. The climbing activity that Taber practices isn't about dominating the landscape, or surviving it. If landscape traditions have passed down predigested ways of seeing the landscape, Taber is taking nothing for granted. He is investigating the contemporary uses of the same kinds of natural spaces that painters like Moran were studying, personally getting familiar with the nooks and crannies of a landscape.
Climbing on rocks is an arcane way of knowing (almost an epistemology). It disputes your routine relation to a nature preserve, physically, forcing an experience of the land that is not so vista-oriented. The challenge of bouldering as a leisure activity is like the strategic exercise that chess players undertake. Only with chalk and special shoes. You're trying to strategize a route across a boulder. A route that consists of naturally-occurring handholds and footholds in a pattern that, hopefully, your body can navigate (against the better judgment of gravity). [see gallery images below]
Of course, Taber is also fascinated by the industry around rock climbing, it's emergence as a leisure activity and it's deformed enunciations. But the photographs he's recently been making during his trips to Joshua Tree, the Angeles, and other boulder-laden areas remind me of the exposed layers of the earth that interests like Moran sought out in places like the Grand Canyon. In Taber's photographic close-up shots of boulders, you are immersed in a field of the composite minerals of the rock and the colorful varieties of lichen crusting across the surface. [see gallery images below] Often, the most recent layer to coalesce on these rocks is a white chalk, dusted around cavities and outcroppings; the chalk which climbers use to keep their hands from slipping. It is this material trace of human culture that links these photographs to an archaeological record, suggesting their genus and species of landscape.
Ryan Taber is represented in Los Angeles by Mark Moore Gallery: www.markmooregallery.com
Patrick Marcoux is a birdwatcher in Los Angeles.