Visual Art 3-11-2007

Our Invented World(s)

With wit in plenty, but unwittingly tragic, this show makes plain some radical changes in thinking about the relationship of nature and culture that have occurred in the past generation.

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Liz Miller

“Environments of Invention” is at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, 50 W. Kellogg Ave. in St Paul, through March 25. Artists include Holly Anderson Jorde, David Lefkowitz, Cherith Lundin, Liz Miller, Erika Olson, Margaret Pezalla-Granlund.

Paper icebergs (seen from below); tree stumps made of cardboard; little cartoon woodland scenes in ceramic and felt; a biomorphic scatter of machine-made forms; a landscape of fully interchangeable smooth white parts; another landscape of giant bedclothes, limned delicately along a plaster wall.

Nature still lends its forms to these artworks, but it’s experienced as mediation, as a made thing.

This used to be news. Twenty years ago it was Baudrillard’s news, Lyotard’s news. These French thinkers wrote that we now live in a fully mediated world, that of the simulation, the world where there’s always a scrim of human culture between us and the big world that was here before humans existed. In fact, the scrim is so thick we can’t really even tell whether there’s anything else out there. The things that we take for granted as our environment—what you might call the ground of existence, the given– are all apparently human, now.

When one of the artists in this show, at the panel discussion, spoke of seeing the environment of trees and scrub along the road as she drove up the North Shore as being not very appealing and, well, “messy,” it became even more apparent that the artworld is fully encased in a solipsistic universe, eating and creating culture.

Artists, of course, haven’t created this situation, but they do report on it. The show is an affecting and effective report from the changing boundary between nature and human culture. It’s witty and amusing, and also, from the standpoint of this somewhat misanthropic treehugging critic, terribly sad.

The world in which icebergs come from National Geographic photos and forest landscapes come from Disney cartoons, and where our closest contact with trees is through our use of their macerated flesh in cardboard cartons and printer paper, is very much the real one. We might wish it wasn’t but the first step toward accomplishing that wish to realize that it is.

This isn’t exactly tragic, I suppose–but it makes all the lip service about the environment that we hear and perform sort of pointless. If even we art types have no real sense of the nonhuman world as the ground of being, the existent prior and overarching reality, which has things to teach us, then nature becomes Nature, a Tree Museum, an “ecosystem” whose primary purpose is to save our sorry asses from ourselves.

So do see this show. It’s important. Minnesota Museum curator Theresa Downing has once again laid her ear to the ground and heard something significant. And besides, the work is all deft, accomplished, and often beautiful and enjoyable.

Cherith Lundin’s gorgeous drawing is, as always, an unmitigated good, and Liz Miller’s wild fluttering wall piece is also fun. David Lefkowitz’s thoughtful wit is reliable; Margaret Pezalla-Granlund’s skatepark-landscape is a very peculiar but evocative idea of heaven. Other work throughout the show will intrigue you and, maybe, lead to more thought about the assumptions that underlie our days.

On Wednesday, March 14, 2007, 7-9pm,
Join the MMAA for an evening of presentations by respected designers from the community who create and work with various types of constructed environments.

Including presentations by:
Rebecca Krinke, Landscape Architect
Don Luce, Curator of the Bell Museum of Natural History

Patricio Fernandez, Digital Artist

Free admission.