Julia V. Hendrickson
In the mid-to-late 18th century, in the heyday of Western European landscape painting, philosophical debates over the nature of aesthetics centered around the concepts of beauty and the sublime. Edmund Burke famously made the distinction that balance, smoothness, and color lay in the realm of the beautiful, whereas vastness and terror were in the realm of the sublime. Immanuel Kant added the caveat that the terror of the sublime could only be invoked by an experience of nature. Early print historian William Gilpin further elaborated that the “picturesque” was an aspect of the beautiful in nature that was capable of being reduced and illustrated in painting or in print: the design element.
As a result of this conversation, landscape painters like Claude Lorrain, Caspar David Friedrich, and J.M.W. Turner were lauded for capturing nature in states that were both alluringly picturesque and terrifyingly vast. At the turn of the 19th century image-viewing devices like the stereoscope, popular tourism accessories such as the “Claude glass” (a convex mirror used to frame, darken, and distort the landscape like a Lorrain painting), and the subsequent birth of photography ensured that “picturesque” would be forever linked to both landscape and photographic image.
“He confesses to have a fervent distaste for the “dirty and inconvenient” reality of nature.”
In an upcoming exhibition at Wally Workman Gallery (Austin, TX), Jason Urban presents sculptures relating to beauty, the sublime, and the picturesque, with a 21st century twist. In part an amateur photographer of wryly clichéd landscapes and sunsets, Urban revels in the ubiquity of the picturesque image, particularly as it is replicated in the technological realm of screen savers and desktop backgrounds. These placeholders for the real are imbued with tension and irony, for often this kind of stock footage is something we absorb through our screens on a daily basis, to the exclusion of the natural world outside.
Urban himself notes the (sublime) aspects of nature that cause him to avoid the landscape, to distance himself with the camera. He confesses to have a fervent distaste for the “dirty and inconvenient” reality of nature. And, why not? Artist communities are primarily structured around the city; economic, social, and professional networks magnetically keep artists locked into the concrete grid.It’s not insignificant that art residencies are primarily situated as a temporary escape from the urban environment, a structured way for the artist to experience the often-alien reality of nature.
In Sunrise Sticks and Sunset Sticks (2009), two works using digital prints on paper mounted to pieces of poplar (1” x 2” x 6’ each), a highly rasterized image of the sun intersected by a landscape is adhered to pieces of wood leaning against a wall. The lumber is casually propped like the yet-to-be-animated broom handles of Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Up close, it’s hard to see more than agame of colorful, spotted pick-up sticks, or a row of oversize, sugar-coated Japanese Pocky treats; there is no immediately evident visual entrance to the work. Formally, Sticks is a colorful, ramshackle fence. Yet, moving away from the piece, the four-color dots of the photographic image come into focus and the wooden fence becomes a bright window to look through. Suddenly the landscape is visible. What Urban’s work gets at is the unintentional effect of the picturesque in nature to invoke photography. It’s difficult for an artist (or anyone, really) to ignore the pleasure of a vivid gradient within a stellar horizontal composition. Sunrise-as-provocation. Automatically reach for your phone. I am here, but now this moment is dying, I am its caretaker. There is an expectation that what we are seeing will soon cease to exist. This compulsion to document the quotidian demise places the landscape image into the realm of memento mori.
A unique aspect, too, of Sticks, and much of Urban’s other work, is the magnetic pull his sculpture has to the wall. Often three-dimensional, his work is hardly ever meant to be experienced “in the round.” Indeed, he’s a champion of the primarily two- dimensional medium of printmaking. In order to see the sunrise/sunset image of Sticks you have to stand apart from it, at an undetermined distance, some lengths away from the wall. The viewer’s “click” of realization for this piece happens, essentially, where the photographer stood when taking the picture. Like a director watching from the audience, the placement of the artist is with the viewer, poised in an act of looking, waiting for the performance to begin.
“Above all, despite his subject matter, Urban stakes no claim on wilderness. He’s content with just a split fountain, a rainbow roll, the printmaker’s equivalent of a sunset gradient.”
In Urban’s recent sculpture, Forest Fire, Forest File (Winter) (2013), an installation of digital prints mounted to the sides of office boxes is arranged into an imposing barrier. The depicted landscape is darker and more mundane than the grandeur of the morning horizon. The rectangular and stacked format of the boxes recalls a stream of online Tumblr images. They beg to be reshu ed, made disorderly. The work does not hide its dimensionality, but still is steadfastly forward facing, monumental on its stage.
Urban’s work interacts with theatre, and the stage specifically, in a way that postmodern critics like Michael Fried may have found problematic. Fried wrote in “Art & Objecthood” (1967): “there is a war going on between theatre and modernist painting, between the theatrical and the pictorial,” and, dismissively, “what lies between the arts is theatre.” Yet, visually Urban’s work is not overly “theatrical.” It simply highlights the ways in which the gallery serves as an amphitheatre for the presentation of a work of art. Pieces like Sticks and Forest Fire exist at the back of the arena, constructed in three dimensions but presented for one vantage point.
Above all, despite his subject matter, Urban stakes no claim on wilderness. He’s content with just a split fountain, a rainbow roll, the printmaker’s equivalent of a sunset gradient. A simple, beloved trick to lay more than one color down at a time. Where the edges meet a horizon inevitably forms, echoing the commonplace, but always picturesque, daily routine of nature.