Second Nature: Contemporary Landscapes from the MFAH Collection
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
June 10 through September 25, 2011
Second Nature: Contemporary Landscapes from the MFAH Collection examines the revived interest in landscape by contemporary artists, tracing the theme through the literal interactions of the 1960s to the conceptual manipulations of the present day. Some two dozen works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s permanent collection will be showcased, including pieces by renowned artists Ansel Adams, Ed Ruscha, James Turrell, and Julie Mehretu, among others. Many of the works are recent acquisitions or major pieces that are rarely displayed. The exhibition opens July 10, on view in the Millennium Galleries of the Audrey Jones Beck Building through September 25.
“Since the mid-1960s, escalating anxiety about the environment has spurred a new engagement with the landscape through art,” said Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator of modern and contemporary art and special projects. “The concept for this exhibition was first proposed by Elliott Zooey Martin, former curatorial assistant here at the MFAH. In combing through the collection with me, she noticed that a number of important works shared a common theme in regard to our relationship to the world around us.”
“These objects employ landscape imagery that has been mediated through selection, technology, and creative invention, offering a second look at the natural world,” Ms. Martin has added. “Together, they demonstrate the continued power of the land to speak to the contemporary imagination.”
“Second Nature is a perfect summer show for Houston,” states Gwendolyn H. Goffe, interim director at the MFAH. “The artists’ passionate vision of the landscape takes viewers from the American West to the Eastern seaboard, from Japanese riverbeds to the sky over Iceland. Come join them on their vividly imagined journeys around the world.”
The exhibition will open with a selection of works by artists who have literally entered the landscape itself, with projects that range from large-scale transformations to minimal interventions. James Turrell’s Roden Crater, for example, will be represented by two topographical studies that describe this visionary project to transform an extinct volcano into a realm of perceptual contemplation. A different strategy is introduced in the work of Alan Sonfist, Richard Long, and Robert Lobe, who transpose fragments of nature into the gallery setting. Sonfist’s Element Selection of the East, 1968—a rarely seen treasure in the MFAH’s permanent collection—is made up of branches gathered and gilded by the artist as a testament to the value and fragility of our environment. Long’s East West Circle, 1996, composed of black river stones, reconfigures a particular riverbed the artist visited in Japan. Lobe’s Slow Digestion, 1983, which was fabricated by hammering aluminum sheets over tree roots and rocks, is a ghostly presence infused with a sense of loss and desire.
Working with landscape imagery in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction ensures not only access to a greater number of sources but also the ability to layer images and visual associations within a single work. America’s most cherished landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, is represented by two slightly varying prints of his Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California, 1944, as well as by a special commission he undertook for Hills Bros. Coffee in 1969. Denis Oppenheim maps the fields of eastern Long Island with images of drawings that span three family generations. Mungo Thomson expands upon Pop Art traditions in his 2002 American Desert video, where he appropriates the classic Road Runner cartoon series, digitally erasing the protagonists so that we are left only with a series of stylized Southwestern landscapes. Appropriating the conventions of movie-making, Duncan Ganley offers a sublimely romantic, wide-angled film still with his 2007 midnight, mid-Atlantic…. To create Colorado Blue Spruce, 2001, Helen Altman printed a found image of a solitary spruce tree on a quilted blanket, the kind used by moving companies, connecting the disappearance of nature with the rootlessness of contemporary life.
A number of artists look back at the history of landscape imagery, particularly the photographs and paintings that mythologized the American west. With Undying Glare, 2007, Adam Helms presents a diorama where a taxidermy buffalo stares out at Helms’ monumental re-rendition of Ansel Adams’s Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California. Mark Klett’s Viewing Thomas Moran at the Source, Artist’s Point, Yellowstone, 2000, pays tribute to (and critically re-examines) the ideals of manifest destiny embedded in Thomas Moran’s 19th-century panorama, tellingly juxtaposed with the original site.
Additionally, many artists approach the landscape as both a register ripe with associations and a space of crisis. With Untitled (# 1) and Untitled (# 2), 2007 – 08, Ed Ruscha laments commercial construction’s consumption of landscape by contrasting what was once pristine with what is now over-built. Melissa Miller decries the erosion of the Texas landscape in Tapestry, 2007, while Vernon Fisher builds the composition of Movements Among The Dead, 1990, atop a chalk-board, where his renderings of mountains are threatened by the possibility of erasure. Mark Tansey’s Apple Tree, 2010, thoughtfully illustrates the intellectual histories embedded in the western culture—layering images of Eden, the Tigris river valley, and icons of American landscape painting into a single image. James Balog’s and Noriko Furunishi’s vertical landscape photographs stitch together numerous views into a single vista, while Julie Mehretu and Terrell James draw their inspiration from the intersection of geography with the cyclical rhythms of nature. The mutability of our environment and its connection to personal history is explored eloquently in Katrina Moorhead’s Landscape of a Danger, 2011, a special loan to this exhibition.
Upcoming Exhibitions at the MFAH
- Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes
July 3–September 25, 2011
- Tutankhamen: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs
October 16, 2011-April 15, 2012
- Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts
October 23, 2011-January 15, 2012
About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Established in 1900, the MFAH is the largest cultural institution in the region. The majority of the museum’s presentations take place on its main campus, located in the heart of Houston’s museum district, which comprises the Caroline Wiess Law Building, the Audrey Jones Beck Building, the Glassell School of Art and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. The Beck and Law buildings are connected underground by The Wilson Tunnel, which features James Turrell’s iconic installation The Light Inside (1999). Additional resources include a repertory cinema, two significant libraries, public archives and a state-of-the-art conservation and storage facility. Nearby, two remarkable house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens and Rienzi—present collections of American and European decorative arts. The encyclopedic collections of the MFAH are especially strong in pre-Columbian and African gold; Renaissance and Baroque painting and sculpture; 19th- and 20th-century art; photography; and Latin American art. The MFAH is also home to a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art, the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA).