Man is a secondary, negligible entity in Land Use/Misuse—a fact both banal and remarkable. It’s banal because this Gerald Peters Gallery exhibition only features landscapes, so logically, the focus should fall on places and not people. What makes it remarkable is that the exhibition is subtitled The Celebration and Exploitation of the American Landscape. Keeping this important counterpart out of the picture is a gutsy move for a show that focuses on how humans have impacted their environment, ultimately offering Land Use a greater opportunity for evenhanded analysis.
Variety is at the heart of the show, with 28 artists’ pieces in several mediums (oil paint, acrylic, bronze, photography) and sizes, ranging from tiny to gigantic. The gallery’s spaciousness creates an able home for this work, giving each piece substantial breathing room to make its point.
The first half of Land Use/Misuse’s dialectic contains innocuous, positive connotations—ideas that “Flatscape #102” happily channels. Harold Gregor’s acrylic-on-canvas piece finds bright pink and orange fields encircling a quiet, small suburb, exemplifying the concept that man and land can indeed exist in harmony. Man has staked his claim here, but he’s been careful and smooth about it, still allowing the luscious foliage to blossom. “Flatscape’s” agreeable tone imparts a great sense of warmth and calmness.
The “use” in Land Use also implies nature being left free to run amok as it pleases. “Joys of a Mexican Graveyard” communicates this sentiment well. John Alexander’s oil-on-canvas concentrates on a patch of gorgeous, barely maintained foliage. The only evidence of man imposing himself on the area is a handful of colorful crosses jutting out of the ground. As this image implies both nature existing happily and people being buried in the dirt, “Joys” makes an amusing observation about man’s relationship with nature: Perhaps we’re only friends in death.
But man also has a nasty habit of seizing territory for the sake of growth and homogeny, which is where “misuse” comes to life. Chuck Forsman quietly mocks the humdrum quality of man-made developments in “American Fable.” The oil-on-Masonite piece shows a mountain that’s been made habitable. Every home here is so neatly, tediously tucked into its space on this mountain that the scene is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. The landscape in “Fable” looks like a nice enough place to live, but people have conquered a monolith only to produce boring results.
Other works champion the persuasive powers of bleakness. Michael Scott’s “Clear Cut” juxtaposes miles of tree stumps with a few lonely living trees standing in the foreground, and John Ganis’ “Hoh Valley Rain Forest, Logging in Olympic National Forest, Washington,” features a tree with “CUT” hastily spray-painted on it. They are reminders that progress begets destruction. The artists are blunt with their anti-industrial messages, and the results are effectively depressing.
People never appear in physical form in Land Use/Misuse until Tony Foster’s “Falls the Shadow.” Eight watercolor and pencil compositions of idyllic forestry and canyons make up the piece and would be forgettable if not for their accompanying objects. Small transparent boxes under each picture house references to humans: matches, a bullet, miniature figures clustered together. Each nod to or depiction of man is sequestered from its nearby vista, emphasizing that this is still Mother Nature’s sprawling, vast world; we just happens to rent its real estate.