Endangered Wasteland is an exhibition of four young American painters whose work consistently investigates the landscape, often in the regions between the traversed and the imagined, but with a focus specifically on places where society’s influence either through abandonment or commercialization has made an imprint on the wilderness, not always for the worse, but almost certainly for the uncanny. Tomory Dodge, Angela Dufresne, Kelly McLane, and Lisa Sanditz represent a diverse range of approaches within a form of painting for which there stands a long history in our country.
In 1836 Thomas Cole, founder of The Hudson River School of landscapists, completed a five part cycle of paintings titled The Course of Empire¹ in which the rise and fall of an imagined civilization is depicted in sequence. The series begins with the tribal birth of a nation titledThe Savage State, and progresses through The Pastoral, The Consummation, Destruction, and finally the Desolation. What was then for Cole a critique and forewarning of the impending effects of industrialization on the American landscape and the growing push westward fueled by steam and Manifest Destiny, now seems all too resonant at a time when we are fairly certain of our effects on the earth’s climate and in the midst of a war for which there is questionable support. Though now it may seem that our former vice presidents are far better equipped with PowerPoint presentations as environmental advocates than painters are with canvas.
These four painters do not see their works as vehicles of protest or as chronicles of imminent demise such as Cole’s. Perhaps their generation knows better than any other that seeing images of oil soaked birds on the blackened Alaskan shore doesnt make any of us drive our car less it just makes us feel bad about it. We now know that the apocalypse is a cyclical fact of civilization as much as death is a fact of life. Instead these regions, often devastated by commercial demand, left barren by ecological imbalance, or simply made the surreal stage for aberrant man-made structures are inspiring in their vastness and strangeness. The works in this exhibition do not represent absolute states as in The Course of Empire, not ‘pre’ or ‘post’ -apocalyptic but perhaps merely ‘trans-apocalyptic’, just beautiful moments along the way, one wasteland unto the next, or at least producers of that fearful sublime that we used to hear so much about.
Perhaps in that sense we have made some progress as a nation… as a people, having found some strange comfort or ease in the predictability of our species to make the same mistakes again and again.
¹ Thomas Cole’s Course Of Empire is on view at The New York Historical Society /www.nyhistory.org
(Works by Angela Dufresne courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, New York, NY)