Published  24/01/2007

Mediators and Messengers: Contemporary Art in the Landscape

Mediators and Messengers: Contemporary Art in the Landscape

The entire agenda for painting about landscape has shifted in the 21st century. Concepts and readings of the land have a weighty and protracted precedence but in the 1970s, far-reaching revisions were explored by artists. These have generated a powerful volume of new work by painters, and installation and land artists. An important proviso has been that painting as a relevant medium has not been phased down or out; in fact, it has become reinvigorated and charged with new purpose of an unprecedented kind.

Painters as widely divergent as Gerhard Richter, Brice Marden and Anselm Keifer address the wide-ranging issues of history and transcendence in the process of creativity and spirituality, bringing into focus the very plight of human existence under threat from war and environmental catastrophe. Parallel to this, although not painters, artists such as Richard Long and Robert Smithson have renewed human awareness of the ancient and yet wholly contemporary reference of the land with a profound set of markers for future exploration.

The German painter Gerhard Richter can be viewed as a primary example of 'mediator'. In an interview with Robert Storr,1 he clarified this:

RS: Do you, in fact, view your abstract paintings as being as much about the yearning for transcendent states of being as the landscapes are about a yearning for the beauty found in nature?
GR: If I understand you correctly, I would say that the landscapes are closer to such an intention than the abstract paintings. They are further removed from a stated intention to be models of reality.

In Richter's case, his paintings of this type are indifferent to the actual needs of the observer, and it could be said that the execution of the painting itself is subordinated to the mechanical aberration of the process of looking. Many of Richter's images are 'death-haunted' and this aspect he shares with Kiefer.

Anselm Kiefer's paintings, sculptures, books and works on paper have been orchestrated together using the theme of transcendence: thus, Heaven and Earth2 aptly addresses Kiefer's intention to define the spiritual in art since the mid-20th century. A formidable body of work that resonates in spiritual and material terms, Kiefer's achievements are of great significance. Based on Germany's physical and cultural landscape since the war, Kiefer addresses guilt, shame and destruction by creating images laden with subtle and personal symbols of rebirth and redemption. Few artists have grasped the constant threat to modern civilisation and succeeded in orienting themselves through such a remarkable plethora of visual and theoretical phenomena as Anselm Kiefer. Contemporary art has, in many instances, confused the relationship between art and transcendence, so it is deeply satisfying to accompany Kiefer on his epic journey. Kiefer inscribes a number of his paintings and installations with 'Am Anfang' ('In the Beginning') to stress the need to return to an ancient past, before religious dogma distorted enlightenment. Michael Auping observes:

Kiefer's road to heaven, informed by an awareness of history, is paved with a scepticism that is turned as much against scientific certitude as it is against theological authority. He does not assume the existence of a paradise, only the ancient need to imagine one.2

Kiefer's manifold range of influences is original and illuminating. His recent paintings combine a sensual and passionate affinity with the matière of paint - its mysterious and symbolic ability to evoke emotional states - to allude to history and layers of meaning, with an intellectual approach that is most impressive. 'For more than three decades Kiefer has explored the dauntingly large question of why concepts such as transcendence and the idea of a superior being exist throughout history.'3 It has to be said, that is, given the extreme fragility and complex constructions of his paintings inches deep with paint and with objects.

Kiefer defined art's role and the role of the artist in a traumatised post-war world. Kiefer incorporates a traditional palette as a symbol to imply the aspiration of art to seek a higher plane of vision. In the early 1980s an image of a palette hovers precariously between the physical landscape and the starry heavens. In certain paintings the palette lies on the messy floor among the detritus of life; in others, it hovers over the physical desolation of Hitler's Armageddon.

Symbolic materials, found objects, and a collection of pieces that represent the minutiae of life but allude to the primal issues of human existence, are all collected, stored and employed like the lost images from one's personal past and from history. The grey and minimal canvases, built up from layers of impastoed chunky materials, in a very different manner from the flat layering of Brice Marden, for example, are destined to break away from the painting in time and to convey a message direct to the subconscious. This serves to enlighten the present physical moment in life, reminding one that however grim the past and future may be, the search, the journey and belief in both is fundamental to being human, and that art has a pivotal role to play. 'In his desperate attempt to communicate beyond the halls of philosophy, church and state, an artist invariably finds himself in a kind of purgatory.'4 Referring to his painting 'The Starred Heaven', Kiefer comments:

I was using myself as the hero of an imagined myth or revolution. It is humorous, pathetic, but it is an important part of researching about who we are in this universe. We are capable of thinking very high and very low. Placing ourselves between heaven and earth is more difficult.5

Kiefer invariably uses the natural world as a beginning for his work: trees, forests, life cycles, and the mythology of serpents and angels as a means to create a dialogue between heaven and earth. For Kiefer, the universe contains spirit and matter that are in a continual process of creation and destruction. Fire and melting metals, the combining of metals; transformation and creation are fused. Alchemy is central to Kiefer's work and creativity as it was for Beuys. Kiefer's landscape paintings are profoundly solemn, alluding to past cataclysm and the inevitability that history will repeat itself.

The American painter Brice Marden's 'Nebraska' (1966) brings him into frame. This is a monochrome abstract, as Richard Dorment says, 'in delicate tones of grey-green, from even a short distance away the surface looks uninflected and impersonal, as though the paint had been laid on with a roller-brush. Step up close and you see how much of the artist's touch is visible'. This painting was the cool result of Marden travelling through the Nebraska landscape, 'not big feelings of awe or exaltation but something gentler and more subdued, as consciousness of the flat green farmlands and wide open space'. Marden, too, is a mediator in the field.

In a different culture, the recognition and support for Australian Aboriginal art has been a global process. Indeed, as global warming has wreaked havoc upon climate patterns, and large tracts of previously fertile land are becoming drought-stricken and barren, white Australians are learning from the original inhabitants, who lived a very different existence, and a respect for the natural world. The environmental implications alone of the Aboriginal way of life, in which art plays a central role are a great inspiration to Australian white artists, as well as artists from other parts of the world who have sought inspiration from the land forms and colours of Australia, but also from Aboriginal culture.

Australian Aboriginal art, both historically and in a contemporary context, shows a great and permanently recurrent manifestation of a fundamental desire to reach transcendence and to live in harmony with the environment. It provides a link between the physical world inhabited by humans, plants and animals and the spiritual world. Art gives meaning to the landscape. The range of Aboriginal art is symptomatic of the vastness of the Australian continent and the sophisticated and complex culture of the Australian Aborigines, the extenuated time frame millennia before European colonisation. Ritual performances, music, body art, sculpture and painting on rock, bark and more recently using western materials, canvas, are used to summon ancestral powers to rationalise life on earth and the more universal issues of life and death. The levels of meaning, the significance of Aboriginal art to all aspects of life and the complexity and sacred nature of much art was overlooked by Europeans, whose evolutionary perspective rendered Aborigines invisible and their culture 'primitive'. For millennia, Aboriginal artists have acted as mediators.

A number of key collectors and artists from America and Europe have been instrumental in publicising the work and the issues implied. In Australia by the 1970s there was an increased awareness of Aboriginal culture and as the next decade unfolded the extent of the dehumanising effects of the European colonisation of Australia were revealed and published. Thus revealed, the abysmal plight of Aborigines led to long-term protests, and to the politicisation of culture. In due course, as increased knowledge of Aboriginal links with the land became more understood, arts administrators and collectors were galvanised to confront the issues inherent in Aboriginal art with unprecedented urgency. As the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Gerard Vaughan, stated in his foreword to Colour Power:

The visual art of indigenous Australia has a stronger presence, diversity and dynamism than ever before in its history. Many Australians have been looking at, thinking about, and - consciously or unconsciously - absorbing this new art for at least twenty years. It is impossible to deny that Aboriginal artists have transformed the way we see our land and the history of Australian art. In fact, Aboriginal art, in all its diverse forms, has become the mainstream of contemporary art practice.6

Aboriginal art can be reconciled, as has become evident, within the Modernist aesthetic with considerable ease. The colours of the traditional dot paintings, the fabulous patterning, the meticulous craft and acute professionalism employed make a superficial acceptance of the aesthetics of Aboriginal culture seamless. The provision of Western materials, such as acrylic paint and canvas, has led to more marketable works that could be transported and exhibited and sold worldwide. A number of the most exciting and beautiful recent works are painted collaboratively, exuding all manner of detail, with thrilling colours that make references to places, to the cycles of life. There is an energy in these works that celebrate life while acknowledging every bit of struggle, individual and collective. As images of abstract balance and skill, they are unsurpassed. The combination of traditional and indigenous forms of representation is of course not unique to Australian culture; in fact what seems so relevant to the world at large is the successful nature of this cultural 'bricolage'.

Desert Aboriginal ground and body, implement or rock art employs earth pigments, animal products, plants, and feathers. Each material, in a manner Levi-Strauss associates with bricolage, retains its association with its source, origin, and locale, and brings these into the work as elements of its own meaning. Thus, colour is only one basis for identifying, choosing, and then 'reading' a medium. But with acrylics, colour is the only basis for differentiation. This radical difference in the semiology of materials can take some getting used to, but in the end may free the artists in another sense, presenting new choices unavailable to the bricoleur.7

In her essay, 'Moorditj Marbarn (Strong Magic)', Aboriginal artist Julie Dowling quotes Jean-Paul Sartre who described the role of painting as 'the painter paints the world only so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it'.8 Her belief that painting is her means of cultural and personal survival provides an important perspective to the notion that painting is alive in the broadest sense:

[O]n a metaphysical level, the use of pigments and materials such as ochres is a sacred act coming from sacred lands. Such pigments have power because they project these same values, while we translate the many layers of meaning we possess in our minds and hearts as Indigenous peoples. Such colours create relationships between people and the land by travelling great distances throughout the world on bark boards, carved objects and on canvas.9

The South African artist Karel Nel concerns himself with related issues and acts more as a messenger where landscape is concerned. Based in Johannesburg, Nel is Associate Professor of Fine Art at the University of Witwatersrand. From there he travels for six months of each year in the Pacific region, to Polynesia, Micronesia, Australia, Easter Island, Réunion Island and New York City. His colleague at the University of Witwatersrand, David Bunn, describes the way of life and the impact on Nel's work:

Nel's obsessive travel is a direct source for that material that constitutes his art. Through his journeys he attempts to research those remaining places where precapitalist forms of value persist, where objects used in transaction have a charged ritual significance and weave distinct communities into the same web of obligation. In such places fashioned objects are not inert. Objects moving in the symbolic order as gifts or icons have a role in constituting locality … island communities especially tend to live at a human pace and scale, in harmony with a natural order. Images of island chains and volcanic cones are recurrent in the artist's work … volcanic activity signifies the provisional nature of all matter, and welling up over the crater rim, magma tells a story of creative processes at the fiery core of the earth.10

Karel Nel's knowledge and expertise of African art underpins his approach to art; the implied political standpoint is also central to his work. Jessica Dubow's 'Status of Dust: A Profane Spirituality, A Radical Materiality', describes Nel's work as a 'redemptive aesthetic'. Nel addresses notions of time and information that relate to birth and death. The work displays the artist's interest in site-specific pigments and initiatory practices and art within sacred contexts and remote cultures. The works refer to journeys in time, historically and spiritually. The use of particular ochres, for example, links a work to a specific place. At the same time, they also represent a universality of experience.

Unorthodox materials in a similar process give the works a particular resonance and several layers of meaning. His work shows the absorption of culture and practice such as that of the Australian Aborigines, in particular focusing on links between birth and place. Works on tapa cloth, a rare fabric made from the pounded bark from ficus trees in Polynesia and Micronesia, allude to ghostly presences and ancient rituals. Nel's works emphasise the process of creation, which, in turn, links to the shared experience of ancient but living cultures that are in large part forgotten in the modern world. The use of certain materials reinforces this message: volcanic sand and black carboniferous materials refer to prehistoric times, to the geological history of a place.

German born Nicholaus Lang, who trained as a wood carver in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, studied art in London. He has also drawn inspiration from periods of work spent in the Australian desert. In certain works, he presents found objects and materials that are rich in spiritual meaning or association. Ochre and sand are placed on a geometric grid, 'the primary model of scientific analytic separation, which confers on each item equality of attention and significance'.11 The earth samples were gathered together from different sites in the landscape of spiritual importance. The same materials have traditionally been used for body paint in religious rituals, medicine - the land and its elemental parts are integral to all aspects of life. The land in Aboriginal culture signifies life itself. By presenting the elements and substances in a pseudo-scientific manner, Lang is ironically juxtaposing the domineering Western chauvinism against a benign Aboriginal culture. It is only now that the tragic plight of Aboriginal culture is realised and the gravity of environmental damage is realised that the true error of the ways of colonial expansion can be grasped. Australian painters such as Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Noel Counihan and John Olsen and writer Patrick White have done much to raise consciousness of the Aboriginal people. A number of key individuals and artists have also raised the broader profile of Australia as a continent rich in metaphor for issues that are pivotal for future survival, acting as messengers in the evolving field.

The work of British painter David Blackburn is aptly described by the titles of recent publications of his work. 'The Sublime Landscape' (2002) and the film 'Landscapes of the Mind' (2006) evoke his contribution to the elusive power and mystery of landscape. Working mostly in pastel, an unlikely medium for a contemporary artist, David Blackburn uses it in an original manner, creating images of ineffable inner radiance, a radical departure from traditional pastel or subject matter. Blackburn uses the landscape as a starting point for the search for the sublime.

From the Royal College, Blackburn went to Australia to teach and research. He stayed there for three years, mostly in Melbourne. He travelled to the centre of Australia, and was greatly influenced by the intense Australian light and the dramatic colours of the land itself. He began to produce large-scale works in pastel, notably the 'Creation' and 'Metamorphoses' series. On further trips to Australia in 1971 and 1973, he produced the 'Desert and Stones' drawings and a further 'Creation' series. He has continued to travel to Australia and America, and also to exhibit there.

In the 1960s, Blackburn's work came to the attention of Sir Kenneth Clark, whose 'European humanism and his belief in the sanctity of nature' was in contrast to the prevailing interest in popular culture. Soon after their first meeting, Clark bought three of Blackburn's drawings from his Royal College of Art degree show. His support and friendship were important factors in Blackburn's development as an artist, and his interest in Australia.

Drawing underpins Blackburn's large landscape works. He works direct from nature: trees, roots, and cobwebs. In some works, the use of light with pastel creates a cinematic quality. The Australian light has provided a complete contrast to his Yorkshire works, with 'the darker, Methodist tradition as a powerful presence'. The artist also has an intimate knowledge of the landscape in Yorkshire where he has walked in the Pennines for 60 years. He 'decided to use the landscape he grew up with as a source material for his work while still a student. For him, it was to embody his emotions, becoming his metaphor for self-expression'.12 The duality of life in Yorkshire, of extreme beauty and industrial decay, gives Blackburn's work a tension and a depth. He uses an aerial view from the spectacular Pennines, which emphasises the structural character of the land. Blackburn's pastel landscapes are among the finest and most independent of any artist working in Britain today. Pastel remains an uncommon medium.

Australia, where landscape painting was the dominant tradition, has exerted a great influence on the work of many artists who have visited there. It has also had considerable impact on the critical writing of such key individuals as Sir Kenneth Clark and more recently the late Peter Fuller. In 'New Australian Painting' at the Whitechapel Art gallery in 1961, for which Kenneth Clark wrote an introduction, he observed: 'In Australian landscape painting, as in all great landscape painting, the scenery is not painted for its own sake, but as a background of a legend and a reflection of human values'.13 Landscape artists Arthur Boyd and Fred Williams both produced work that changed the way Australians viewed the landscape and they did so when perceptual and figurative art were considered less relevant than international movements.

David Blackburn was particularly influenced by Fred Williams, who reduced the outback to glorious compositions of dots and patterning. He was probably the first white Australian to see the landscape in a wholly original, non-European way. The light and the sense of space in Australia provided a complete contrast in visual terms to London or Yorkshire. He recalls the intense isolation experienced in the outback and the utter blackness at night. Uluru he describes as the most memorable sight of his life:

The Outback had been a revelation, and suddenly the drawings became full of glowing reds and blazing oranges, with the sky taking up half the picture plane. As the feeling of this huge space, along with a strange dreamlike quality, entered my work, the European concept of foreground, middle distance and background came to seem irrelevant. I started thinking of certain Surrealists - Yves Tanguy in particular.14

David Blackburn locates his own work within the category of the sublime. Like the sublime's most famous English landscape designer, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, Blackburn grew up close to the wild landscapes of northern England. Both were profoundly influenced in childhood by such qualities in the environment. Blackburn's pastels capture that elusive, penetrating quality on land and in the sky that can never be relegated to the merely picturesque. Through abstraction, Blackburn purifies the concept of particular landscape experiences. As the historian and critic Colin Rowe agreed, too, it is in the territory somewhere between the sublime and the picturesque that beauty is more readily found. With Blackburn, it is beauty that mediates with the sublime, in natural consequence.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Storr R, Richter G. Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002: 306.
2. Auping M, Kiefer A. Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth. Munich, London and New York: Prestel Verlag, 2005: 50.
3. Ibid: 24.
4. Ibid: 34.
5. Ibid: 34.
6. Vaughan G. Director's Foreword. In: Ryan J (ed). Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2004: 7.
7. Watson C. Whole Lot, Now: Colour Dynamics in Balgo Art. In: Ryan J (ed). Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2004: 119.
8. Dowling J. Moorditj Marbarn (Strong Magic). In: Ryan J (ed). Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2004: 136.
9. Ibid: 138.
10. Bunn D. Breath Alphabet: Karel Nel and the History of Division. A personal encounter with the artist and his work. In: Karel Nel: Status of Dust. New York, London: Art First, 2004: 18.
11. Gooding M, Furlong W. Song of the Earth, European Artists and the Landscape. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002: 26.
12. Mullins C. The Sublime Landscape. London, Nottingham: Hart Gallery, 2002: 45.
13. Clark K. Introduction to New Australian Painting. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1961.
14. Mullins C. The Sublime Landscape. London, Nottingham: Hart Gallery, 2002: 21.

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