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Finding her place

The Fleming's new curator lands a ground-breaking exhibit

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Landscape is primal in the human imagination. No wonder: Our environs play a role in everything from basic needs -- food, water, shelter -- to culture and sense of identity, to spiritual beliefs and myths. Throughout history artists have documented the landscape, and in so doing, mirrored and shaped how we see ourselves. Think how 18th- and early 19th-century paintings in this country glorified its natural splendor and vast frontiers, and helped to define an ebullient, expansive national character. Think how generations of American artists traced the evolution: from an idyllic, unspoiled land to one conquered and irrevocably transformed by its inhabitants.

After World War II, romantic notions of landscape fell out of fashion in the art world, replaced by abstract expressionism and a growing sense of alienation. If traditionalists continued to paint pretty pictures in, say, pretty places like Vermont, the urban art elite disavowed literal referents altogether -- until Pop Art appeared to ironically glorify the "culture" of consumerism.

Fast-forward a few decades. In the early years of the 21st century, landscape appears to be making a comeback. Not, however, in its former sentimentalized guise; and not necessarily looking like mountains, lakes and trees. This Thursday, the Fleming Museum opens a major exhibition called "New Turf." In it, 15 artists "upend conventional notions about the means by which we represent the landscape," according to curator Evelyn Hankins. "New Turf," she suggests in the show's catalogue, "surveys an array of innovative approaches to the abstracted landscape -- and testifies to American artists' fresh attentiveness to the rapidly changing environments around them."

Ranging in age from 27 to 61, the artists hail from rural, urban or suburban locales around the country; painter Gail Salzman is the sole Vermonter. Their artistic "subjects" are diverse as well -- from the natural ecosystem of a tidal pool to an artless phalanx of big-box stores. But if the media are familiar -- painting, drawing, photography, installation and sound -- the confluence of "abstract" and "landscape" allows for content that is unique, challenging and filled with deeply personal symbolism.

Significantly, "New Turf" also suggests that any natural or unnatural "scape" affects, and can be affected by, its inhabitants. While none of the artists in this show is specifically an "eco-activist," each displays an acute awareness of his or her surroundings, and as such may prod viewers to do the same. Even in the aisles of Wal-Mart.

"This show came about from a realization that there was something in the air -- there were a number of artists looking at landscape from a different perspective," says Fleming Director Janie Cohen, who ably held the museum's curatorial reins for 13 years before handing them to Hankins last fall. "I think Evelyn has really plugged into something," she adds, "and this show will garner national attention."

The title "New Turf" is a double-entendre for Evelyn Hankins: She came to the Fleming, and Vermont, just a year ago, after five years as an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City (see sidebar). This is Hankins' first opportunity to curate a big show, though the abstracted landscape is an idea she says she's had for quite some time. "Vermonters are particularly attached to the landscape," Hankins observes. "So this seemed like the right place to do 'New Turf.'"

Tall and lanky, Hankins combines urban, black-clad chic with unaffected warmth and enthusiasm. When she speaks, her words tumble out at a fast clip, but are softened by a lingering twang -- her family moved from Massachusetts to Austin, Texas, when she was 12. Hankins says "New Turf" is "a bit of an indulgence" -- a natural evolution of her own art-history interests. "My close friends say this show is all about me," she concedes with a grin. But while "there's creativity in picking the themes and selecting the objects," she adds, "it's really about the art; people should walk into the gallery and say, 'This is great art!'"

Since her grad school days at Stanford, where she focused on early 20th-century American art, Hankins has been riveted by that moment in art history "when they were trying to do abstraction," she says. The Whitney brought her up to speed on contemporary work, which enabled her to follow the path of the abstracted landscape. "I found a lot of artists were considering its importance," she explains, "but with the awareness that landscape isn't always beautiful."

It's a given that not all artists live in a place as lovely as Vermont. But "New Turf" is not simply a predictable city mouse/country mouse kind of exhibit; there is no trashing of gritty urban environments or boring suburban ones. And there's not a whiff of the "rural sublime" -- that is so two centuries ago. In fact, one of the show's sub-themes is the creation of unexpected beauty out of something that is decidedly not.

The most striking example of this is Tom Fruin's "Project Survey." The neutral title says nothing of the drama in this New York artist's method. "Wandering through the back alleys and parks studying the refuse of New York," says Fruin, 31, in his artist's statement, "I find signifying detritus that I reinterpret and re-present in a way that communicates both my investigation and the cultural weight imbued in these forgotten items."

"Project Survey" is a large-scale (90 by 75 inches) "quilt" made of drug bags, paper cigar bands and thread. The plastic bags, some of them colored or stamped with a drug dealer's "logo," are cut into small squares and, says Hankins, stitched together with an old-fashioned sewing machine. The irregular rectangle is hung about a foot away from the wall; as light passes through the translucent squares, it casts soft, lovely hues on the white wall, as with a stained-glass window. "This piece combines drug culture with American craft culture," says Hankins. "It is literally made of trash."

According to http://freewilliamsburg.com, actor and art collector Willem Dafoe shelled out 30 grand for a similar piece of "detritus" several years ago -- "Sediment" was made from drug bags that still contained traces of the illicit substances inside them. "Project Survey" appears to be powder-free.

Richard Garrison, a 31-year-old artist living in upstate New York, has chosen a safer and, some might say, duller environment. His minimalist works in watercolor and graphite uniquely document a suburban iconosphere. Garrison "measures consumer spaces," according to Hankins, and translates these dimensions -- such as the aisle widths at Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart -- into graph-like colored bars on stark white paper. In the long horizontal "Storefront Color Schemes" (12 by 87 inches), the stacks of parallel bars represent a row of big-box stores, and the colors echo those of the stores' logos. Garrison's work insures we'll never look at Best Buy or Home Depot the same way again.

Garrison is not the only artist in "New Turf" whose works require a little explanation to be fully appreciated. While that may be said of contemporary abstract art in general, it is particularly true when the artist's method and intention are so fundamental to really seeing the work. No visual clues are evident in Anne Appleby's austerely elegant paintings. The simple geometry of "New Guinea Impatiens" -- six square panels arranged into a 50-by-33-inch rectangle -- gives nothing away. Nor do the solid colors of each block -- in this case, a pale palette of greens, yellows and mauve.

But a closer look reveals that the colors are not quite solid after all; depending on the angle and light, they seem to shift subtly. The paint, without a hint of brushstroke, appears almost iridescent. Formally, Appleby's works are classically minimalist. So what are they doing in a "landscape" show? Hankins explains that the Montana artist intently studies the "essence of the ephemeral color" of a plant -- in this case, impatiens -- and laboriously recreates its composite hues with 50 layers of oil paint and wax on each panel.

It seems a stretch to call the 51-year-old Appleby a nature painter, but the natural world is unquestionably her Muse. "She watches the trees and wildflowers of the Rocky Mountain West and the Pacific Coast with a keen eye, noting the slide in the color of a leaf from verdant, dazzling spring green to a darker, late-summer sunburned reddish moss," waxed a Seattle Times critic in 1998. "She's an abstract minimalist with an astonishingly finely tuned sense for color."

Appleby so reveres color that she isolates it in boxes and asks us to consider its effect free of context. Gail Salzman, a painter from Fairfield, Vermont, does much the same, but her works are far from minimalist. With overlapping layers and fields of rich, translucent pigments, she creates abstracted landscapes that originate in nature, but are mediated by her "internal landscape."

Salzman, 61, suggests that her work in "New Turf" is distinguished by the use of traditional materials in nontraditional ways. "I'm focusing more than the others on honoring the medium of oil paint -- juicy, malleable, sculptural," she says. "I'm using what paint does naturally to create a metaphor, or connections between, nature perceived and my internal mirroring of dichotomies such as light and dark, containment and overflow."

Favoring "accidental configurations" such as reflections on water or overlapping plants seen beneath the surface of a tidal pool, Salzman translates these observations with vigorous brushing, layering and scraping. The resulting active abstractions invite viewers to get lost in their own reveries and associations. In the 36-by-32-inch "Resonance," for instance, a rough circle of dark greens, browns and reds might be imagined as a sort of portal, through which burst bright, sunrise hues. Though it's impossible to detect anything figurative in the work, its shapes and colors are inextricably linked to the natural world.

People have been defining the landscape with maps since long before Columbus set sail for the New World. In the 21st century, New York artist Janice Caswell continues that tradition with deeply personal "mental maps" of her own movements through time and space. "Urban Legends" is a roughly 5-foot-long wall installation constructed of paper, paint and pushpins. The Fleming commissioned the piece for "New Turf," says Hankins, who describes it as documenting Caswell's "movements around New York City on a given day." Neatly arranged blocks of colored paper are punctuated by clustered pins of varying lengths, representing different activities. Each pin is enhanced by a tiny circle of brightly colored paper at its tip. The overall effect is both decorative and, well, map-like.

Caswell says she has been working with this idea for eight years, but began taking note of her environments as a child. "We moved around a lot," she explains. "Because we never went back, my memories are associated with place. I became very oriented that way, and I started trying to catalogue all the places I lived. Over time," she continues, "the work shifted and became about how we see space, and how memories and thoughts are connected with space. The way I'm showing them now, they're starting to blur together -- which also happens with memory."

It's not necessary to know what Caswell was doing, or where or when, during her day in order to find "Urban Legends" fascinating. The installation is both playful and meticulous; its bold graphic sensibility recalls Sonia Delaunay's freewheeling, circular motifs in her "Rythme Couleur" series decades ago.

The other "New Turf" installation commissioned by the Fleming also makes use of circles. Or, more precisely, round balls. McKendree Key -- at 27, the youngest artist in the show -- lives in Brooklyn, but she was born in Brattleboro and her family has a home in South Londonderry. Given her ties to Vermont, Key welcomed the opportunity to create one of her site-specific works in Burlington, she says.

Her art is less about interpreting her environment than interjecting something into it and recording what happens. In this case, that "something" was 4000 plastic balls, each 3.5 inches in diameter, scattered on the frozen lake near Oakledge Park. Key came north for five days last winter, dumped the balls by day and removed them at night. "Evelyn was worried the lake monster might swallow one of them or something," she says with a laugh. When she wasn't taking "tons" of pictures of the balls as they drifted in the snow, Key communed with ice fishermen. "They didn't really get what I was doing," she says, "but they kind of watched over them."

In her catalogue, Hankins describes the scene: "The balls drift and bobble haphazardly before coalescing into an abstract, yet continually animated, monochromatic field. Unlike artists such as Christo and Michael Heizer, however ... Key's projects take a more playful, integrated approach, using plastic toys to trace natural forces such as wind and water."

That was February. This July, for the exhibition, the installation "Lake Champlain" is represented by a large-scale, color photograph. While it would have been fun to see the work in situ, the photo has a nebulous, lunar quality that attracts viewers with the essential mystery of all abstract art: What is it? With its white-on-white palette, flat, empty horizon and lack of scale, nothing here helps the mind grasp what it's looking at. Key leaves it up to viewers to scratch their own heads.

"The human intervention of nature is part of it," she explains of her art. "By placing an object that's so artificial and mass-produced, it's kind of about something that might have gone wrong, or an accident that happened to create this rare experience -- it's not supposed to be there, but it looks really beautiful."

"Art itself might be partially defined as an expression of that moment of tension when human intervention in, or collaboration with, nature is recognized," wrote critic Lucy Lippard in her seminal 1983 book, Overlay. She was addressing the continuum between prehistoric and contemporary art, but the remark could just as easily be applied to Key's balls-in-nature explorations -- and, to a lesser extent, each of the works in "New Turf."

Hankins' final challenge was to arrange these artworks of disparate medium, size, color and concept in a way that would hang together, literally and figuratively. Is a painting that depicts the memory of walking through woods compatible with an aerial photograph of chemical-containment fields? Would a flashy urban tapestry about drug culture relate to a whimsical, lighthearted abstraction of hedges? Does the exhibition's sole soundscape -- a computer-manipulated human voice musing about a sunny day -- speak to, or for, them all?

"In installing a show," Hankins says, "there's a tension between trying to create a narrative as you walk through the gallery, and trying to make the pieces look good next to each other." She says she was delighted, and relieved, to find that these works do hang together, both because of the unexpected echoes of color and shape among them, and the larger sense that everything in our shared environment is ultimately interrelated.

"These artists create works that reflect the contested character of America today," writes Hankins in her catalogue, "as the country becomes ever more divided over what our national landscape should look like." "New Turf" may not have an impact in the Vermont offices of city planners, developers and others who affect the landscape. But viewers will no doubt leave this exhibit with a more measured consideration of their own places, maps and journeys on the land.

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