As a literature major, I approached On Walden Pond at Rudolph Blume with a little bit of trepidation only because merging art and literature is sometimes more of a mash-up than a marriage. Based solely on the title and jumping to conclusions because that's what I do best, I assumed that this collection of works was a set of response pieces created after reading Henry David Thoreau's Walden. I was fully prepared to unearth my dog-earred copy of Walden and attempt to correlate each piece in the show to a passage in the book. Luckily for all of us (you, me, and the artists), that wasn't the genesis of the show.
Instead, it was the curator Volker Eisele's meditation "what would a landscape around Walden Pond look like today as seen through the critical eyes of a contemporary artist with a romantic, perhaps ironic bent?" This 4 person show including Martin Amorous, Joanne Brigham, Seth Mittag, and Tudor Mitroi was the result.
Martin Amorous puts himself in the romantic category. In describing these large black-white-and-gray paintings, he pays tribute to the such artists as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt from the Hudson River School.
Martin Amorous, Tree Bench, 2012
These works are romantic, intimate spaces in birch forests during winter. Or are they? Upon closer inspection, you won't see a single brushstroke. What you will see is drips, pours, and some very controlled splatters. For as Amorous revealed to me, the name of this series is Pour Paintings and that's exactly what they are--the artist's experiments/meditations on the process of pouring paint on canvas.
Martin Amorous, Swell Now, 2012
I view them as trope l'oeil paintings. A landscape coup as if Jackson Pollock attempted to produce a Star Furniture landscape prints and pulled it off. The casual observer can enjoy in the pastoral pleasure of the appearance of the painting while the keen critic can revel in the controlled process exemplified by the works. It's simple solitude that's secretly sophisticated.
Joanne Brigham's installation imagines the landscape as a science-fiction habitat that lies somewhere between the verdant scenery in Beyond Thunderdome and moral cheerfulness of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The pond itself is shrunken to an empty plaster bowl situated on a mound of blood red sands.
Joanne Brigham, Phasing (from room entrance), 2012, installation, various materials
The foliage consists of barren, white-washed branches dangled from the ceiling and joined by string and wire.
Joanne Brigham, Phasing (close-up), 2012, installation, various materials
Also suspended from the ceiling are IV tubes full of blood (or some other red substance) attached to and apparently nourishing cobs of corn and colorless squash. The statement for the exhibition describes "...her rendering of Walden Pond as a sacrificial bowl and the forest surrounding it as symbolic trees growing a bountiful harvest of ..." I'm not getting that vibe from this. At best, I'm thinking of Walden Pond at winter and if this is the future than the "winter of America." At worst, I'm thinking of one of Thoreau's neighbors, John Farmer, an Irish farm worker barely scraping by. Whatever the metaphor and the level of optimism, in my experience, Brigham's dystopian landscape imagines a Walden gone wrong.
Joanne Brigham, Phasing (ground level), 2012, installation, various materials
Keeping with cinematic theme, Seth Mittag's diorama immediately reminded me of the movie Into the Wild. In that movie, which is based on the life of Christopher McCandless, the protagonist who is an idealist and a romantic does his own free spirited version of Walden Pond...and dies. Granted McCandless was a little more hardcore than Thoreau. Thoreau camped out on his friend's, Ralph Waldo Emerson's farm. McCandless set up residence on an abandon bus in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, made a couple of rookie mistakes, and was too faraway from help when he needed it.
Seth Mittag, Prospectors, 2012, Installation, various materials
Mittag's diorama has certain post-industrial rustic charm with the modern convenience of satellite T.V. His Walden pond is completely DIY, but not so far removed from civilization as to deprive its inhabitants of "The Voice" or "Undercover Boss".
Seth Mittag, Prospectors, 2012, Installation, various materials
Mittag's vision of Walden Pond strikes me as the most realistic portrayal of what the pond would look like if it weren't protected by the Boston Brahmans in need of a literary mecca. If I squint real hard at this work and my vision blurs, I can imagine a future in which the reflecting pond in front of Houston's city hall is surrounded by burnt out food trucks and Metro buses on cinder blocks.
Tudor Mitroi works are more about the shape of the land than an experience of it. Whereas the other three artists put the viewer in the landscape, enabling s/he to experience it or imagine it directly. Mitroi puts the viewer outside it, above it, at the ten thousand foot level. Mitroi's experience is that of the aerial surveyor.
Tudor Mitroi, Mission 18 (Red Earth), 2011, casein and acrylic on wood
In Volker Eisele's exhibition statement, he describes them as works that "extract pictorial icons of landscape representation." The edges of a number of these paintings resemble geographic puzzle pieces. (Think google maps, satellite view.)
Tudor Mitroi, Mission 18 (Slaughterpen Bayou), 2012, casein, acrylic, and graphite on wood
Mitroi covers the landscape forms with bright oranges, yellows, and blues. On top of the flat color fields, he adds cartographic symbols that Eisele reveals are "often found on military maps".
Tudor Mitroi, Mission 18 (Blue), 2011, casein and acrylic on wood
The final layer consists of black and white images that remind me of the chalk board metaphor of Vernon Fisher. Eisele states that these images are "infused with a postmodernist agenda of strife and conflict." Whether it's postmodern is debatable, but the shapes of the pieces and the surveying marks give the piece a sense of territorial boundaries and all that such concepts imply, i.e. the strife and conflict to define and maintain such borders.
Judging from Volker Eisele's curatorial perspective, the future on Walden Pond may indeed be so bright that we have to wear shades. However, it will be because of the glow from the radiation or the oil can bonfires.