Man vs. Nature at Hall Art
by Elizabeth Michelman
For Victorian critic John Ruskin, the “sublime” described an aesthetic experience of awe and magnificence accompanied by subjective and even violent emotion. Guest curator Joel Sternfeld, a photographer and videographer teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, re-visits this concept in “Landscapes After Ruskin,” selecting from over 6,000 works of post-World War II art in the collections of the Hall family and Hall Art Foundation. Quaintly staged in the buildings of a former Vermont dairy farm, the exhibition asks whether we can ever separate the human mark from nature. Its imagery challenges us to recognize a world outside that increasingly fails us as we fail it.
Sternfeld favors digital and photographic imagery, painting, and drawing, with a smattering of sculptures, installations, and videos. Familiar German names — Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Thomas Ruff — fill the group of 52 artists, along with numerous other internationally recognized, mostly male artists — Ai WeiWei, Richard Long, Bruce Nauman, Neil Jenney, David Wojnarowicz, Robert Overby — and other rising stars.
Sternfeld’s own 17-minute video, “London Bridge,” pits fantasy against authenticity, romantic longing against doubt. His crooning Venetian gondolier, who plies vacationing couples over Arizona’s man-made Lake Havasu and under the incongruous shadow of London Bridge, both charms and puzzles us. Shall we take him for an actual Venetian guide, an actor or a shaman? Are we being bamboozled by the manipulated grandeur of mountains, desert and the landmark bridge over a dammed-up river, or does it still count as aesthetic experience?
Not all guiding hands are to be trusted, and the appearance of peacefulness may be easily disrupted. Under the starry grey sky of Norbert Schwontkowski’s oil painting, “Hohe Tannen,” a jet’s headlight beams a confident path through a fog. The light bounces just as cheerfully back from the illuminated treetops jutting up ahead, on a level with the jet’s descending belly. In Christoph Draeger’s aerial photographs of houses destroyed by “Hurricane Andrew,” and the 1988 wreck of “Pan Am 103” in a field near Lockerbie, Scotland, disaster becomes spectacle. Draeger further perverts the horror by printing his images on giant jigsaw puzzles.