These images, including an installation picture, are part of a series titled “Earthworks”. The paintings are inspired by the land art movement of the mid-twentieth century, painted in a similar manner to the Hudson River School, interspersed with more intimate nature studies that provide a counterpoint. Most of the paintings are 16” tall.
Two elements of the American identity are the land itself, and the perception that the land was unpopulated, free from history, and therefore a blank canvas with which a person could express their ideas. It seems to me that there is a connection between the earthworks of Robert Smithson, James Turrell, and Michael Heizer, and the grand nineteenth century landscapes of Frederic Church, and other Hudson River school painters. The obvious connection is that they both literally covered the same ground; the other is an interest in the sublime. While philosophically quite distinct, the Hudson River school tends toward reading the landscape as a way to understand the divine, while the modern group looks for transcendence through a meditative process that is primarily about the present, both invoke a vast scale, and attempt to provide a context to understand nature by giving it a frame.
Further complicating this piece is an attempt to find the connection between large scale land art and vast public works and defense projects carried out in the twentieth century. It’s more than the obvious connection of large scale construction completed in the relative secrecy of deserts. I find it difficult to look at Smithson’s “ Spiral Jetty” without thinking about Eisenhower’s superhighway network, or Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field” without thinking of nuclear test sites in Nevada. Partly I suppose it is that the technology suddenly existed to make large scale projects relatively affordable. Both impose simple geometric forms over a complex landscape. Another element of these works is the absolute faith that these changes were an improvement over the existing order. Now there is an increasing distrust of large scale projects. For example, most westerners probably view the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China with some degree of horror. The American west was never empty, nor was it unpopulated.
This brings me to the last point I want to make. The process of making something necessitates the destruction of something else, the larger the scale, the more destructive. I don’t want this to sound like a negative critique of Smithson’s work because I admire his intellect, and the work has a heroic scale that subsequent artists can’t be bothered with, but I find it impossible to imagine a contemporary artist dumping tons of asphalt into a stream as an art project. There is something a little bit frightening about “Lightning Field”, as well as Niagara Falls, and Hoover Dam. The effect of being in the presence of these is similar, the viewer feels less significant, physically vulnerable, but with an increased consciousness of the place they inhabit. I believe that the Hudson River School knew this subject well. To visit Niagara Falls is to imagine falling over it.