Catalogue essay for Ian North’s 1991 exhibition Manifest Destiny I – V
Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 1991, ISBN 0 9588325 7 9
(The works were 79.0 x 246.5 centimetre laminates of wood, acrylic, ink, plexiglass, and colour coupler photographs, juxtaposing four different landscape images of the American West, to which were then added brush strokes of paint.)
Thanks to Helen Ennis and Ian North for reclaiming this forgotten historical text for my blog.
Appreciating the Scenery
As early as 1864 the American geologist Clarence King was complaining that the prominent points of the Yosemite Valley were being overrun by an ‘army of literary travellers who have planted themselves and burst into rhetoric’. He might have had in mind someone like the editor of the Springfield Massachusetts Republican, Samuel Bowles, who planted himself at Inspiration Point in 1868 and wrote: “The overpowering sense of the sublime, of awful desolation, of transcending marvelousness and unexpectedness, that swept over us, as we reined our horses sharply out of green fields, and stood upon the high jutting rock that overlooked this rolling, upheaving sea of granite mountains, holding far down its rough lap this vale of beauty of meadow and grove and river — such tide of feeling, such stoppage of ordinary emotions comes at rare intervals in any life. It was the confrontal of God face to face.’
But in fact King had his own highly developed scientific rhetoric with which to admire the Western Landscape. His geological theory of Catastrophism accounted for Yosemite’s jutting promontories of rock overlooking the moist vales of meadow in the following way: ‘He who brought to bear the mysterious energy we call life upon primeval matter bestowed at the same time a power of development by change, arranging that interaction of energy and matter which makes the environment, from time to time, burst in upon a higher current of life and sweep it onward and upward to ever higher and better manifestations. Moments of great catastrophe, thus translated into the language of life, become moments of creation, when out of plastic organisms something newer and nobler is called into being’. King asked ‘what sentiment, what idea does this wonder-valley leave upon the earnest observer? what impression does it leave upon his heart? …..First, the titanic power, the awful stress, which has rent this solid tableland of granite in twain; and secondly, the magical faculty displayed by vegetation in redeeming the aspect of wreck and masking a vast geological tragedy behind the draperies of fresh and living green’.
In both closely related rhetorics — the literary and the scientific — geology is generative and, as in the biological order of things, He has given progenitive force to periodic rocky cataclysms.
Despite the immediate potency of these ideas, at first the Western Landscape was officially regarded in mundane economic and strategic terms. In 1867 the U.S. Department of War ordered King to head the 40th Parallel Survey: ‘to examine and describe the geological structure, geographical condition and natural resources all rock formations, mountain ranges, detrital plains, mines, coal deposits, soils, minerals, ores, saline and alkaline deposits…[and to make] detailed maps of the chief mining districts’
However, because of the persuasive power of the scientific rhetoric of the Catastrophism and the literary rhetoric of the sublime, by the twentieth century the American Western Landscape had become famous as the most recognisable bit of scenery in the world after the Swiss Alps. But the best definition of the word ‘scenery’ remains an economic one: it is that topography which has become so overgrown with rhetoric that its principle product is not crops or livestock or minerals, but admiration. And via recreational parks such scenic wildernesses are inserted into a system of economic usefulness.
With this historical background in mind we can see Ian North’s juxtaposition of an Ansel Adams photograph with a painting by Georgia O’Keefe as a comment on the gender politics of the Western Landscape. The hubristic monumentality of Ansel Adams, twentieth century inheritor of the sublime machismo of the nineteenth century geologists, wilts somewhat in the face of the voluptuous experience of Georgia O’Keefe’s fleshy envelopings. (Such a startling juxtaposition gains even more meaning when one reflects that both artists, in their turn, are claimed by two distinct types of contemporary greenie: the rugged Paddy Pallin wilderness trekker, and the nurturer of intimate Earth consciousness.)
North flanks these already rhetorically productive diptychs with a tourist postcard image and a landscape photograph taken by himself (which he describes as ‘the artist’s pursuit of what might be his own eye — or a simulation thereof) and reminds us that a famous piece of scenery is just as much caught up in the problematics of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction as a famous oil painting.
And finally, by embedding all four jostling, argumentative images in a museal slab North refers us to the role of institutional sanctification in our ‘natural’ knowledge of Nature.
If that was all it would be enough, a bit didactic perhaps, but enough. However the series is taken far beyond this clear-headed investigation of the relationship between topography, landscape and scenery by the brush marks which the artist has urgently applied across all four images. Or, rather than taking us beyond, perhaps this brushwork takes North himself inside those historical and rhetorical relationships.
The trenchant critique created by the juxtaposition of the four types of landscape image — Adams, O’Keefe, postcard and North himself — is both amplified and distorted by the seemingly delinquent vandalism of North’s brush. The paint makes visual rhymes and puns, it fictionalizes events within the images and fabricates connections between them. The textural immediacy of the brushwork returns North to that jutting promontory of rock. Yet now he is no longer an imperious, disincarnated eye gazing over either a Vale of beauty’ or ‘detrital plains’. The gestural brushmarks re-embody him, they glance across the landscape and reintroduce the duration of lived time into the moment of perception. The flux of somatic humours record themselves in scudding sweeps and juddering dabs.
These works claim that in appreciating a landscape there is no retinal instant, no unmediated visual epiphany; rather there is a necessary dilation of the event of looking and an intrinsic rhetorization of sight. Perhaps, in these terms, sublimity is a measure of the inadequacy of rhetoric to its task.
In this sense the brush marks are a residue of the act of looking. They follow the contours of the image, annotate it, or act in counterpoint to it. At times North’s brushwork reminds me of somebody conducting an imaginary orchestra which they are listening to on headphones. By hapticly reinscribing the act of perception back into the scenery itself the brushwork complicates the proscenium space of the view. It is now a warped and anamorphosistic space, one could almost say a baroque space, in the sense that it incorporates within itself the subjective contingency of its very perception as space.
North introduces doubt and duration into these traditional images of the Western Landscape and renegotiates a place for himself within the received rhetoric of looking, a provisional and insecure place to be sure, but a place from which he can appreciate the scenery as equally a geological and a cultural topography.
Alan Trachtenberg, “Naming the View”, Reading American Photographs: Images as History Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, Hill & Wang, 1989.
Ann-Sargent Wooster, “Timothy O’Sullivan Reading the American Landscape”, Afterimage, March 1982.
Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity”, Vision and Visuality, Hal Foster (Ed.), Bay Press, Seattle, 1988