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Environmental Art and Masculine Aggression

9/22/09

Kate Brandt.

An impressive and immense sculpture made out of reeds hung down from the ceiling and lured visitors into the Inova Gallery on Kenilworth Square East for the opening reception of the Roy Staab Four Seasons/Four Corners exhibition. Inova Dragon, a commissioned piece for Inova for this retrospective exhibition, represented various environmental artworks that Staab has been creating for decades. With assistance, Staab collected the reeds from the side of a highway, brought them into the gallery and constructed the piece over the course of several days. The second room of the gallery hosted a slew of drawings and photographic documentation of his environmental works. On display in the screening room was a loop of video documentation, showing various angles and details of his works. What is important to note about the video documentation is that it shows his pieces being acted on by the surrounding environment, something that the photographic documentation didn’t fully convey.

Inova Dragon, Photo Credit: Alan Magayne-Roshak

The exhibition was thoughtfully curated. The Inova Dragon filled the space in a majestic manner, while geometric shapes repeated themselves throughout the documentation and in the display of drawings itself. The “X” seen throughout the exhibit is a subtle clue that indicates the artist’s imprint on the earth, a symbolic gesture that curator Nicholas Frank describes as “X marks the spot.”

Staab’s environmental sculptures have been installed in various locations all over the world, from his quiet hometown in Wisconsin to New York City to Japan. He starts by surveying the space he wants to use to create his sculpture, and then constructs the large-scale installations using elements from the surrounding installation site. The result could be described as meditative, ephemeral, quietly powerful. The work only lasts as long as nature (or vandals) will allow.


Flight, Photo courtesy of the artist.

Environmental or Land Art has been a long-standing genre in the contemporary art community. Well-known names like Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, and Robert Morris have constructed vast artworks that explored man’s relationship to the earth. These artists were also questioning and pushing notions of the contained, commodified art object that was traditionally displayed and viewed within four white walls of a museum or gallery, which ultimately helped to expand the conceptual art movement of the 1960’s. It is worth noting that there are several variations of land/environmental art that raise different issues. Brian Wallis and Jeffrey Kastner outline a series of themes that are characteristic of land art in their text, Land and Environmental Art: Inception, Integration, Interruption, Involvement, Implementation, Imagining, and Illumination. While these themes are not intended to directly define various artists working within a particular style, they “rather bring together an array of observations, meditations, explications, and calls into action in a contextual orbit around a strongly gravitational cultural body.”*  As with any genre in art, the intentions that environmental artists are presenting vary. Staab is located within this context in an interesting way. His meticulously documented work indicates that perhaps he is not rejecting the four white walls of the gallery. In fact, he has documented his work in such a way that suggests this is where most of his audience will view his work, since the pieces themselves are not always easily found or accessible.

An overwhelming amount of these historical, environmental art pieces are created by male artists. While women, such as Ana Mendieta and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, have held a place in this particular art movement, the majority of artists recognized for pioneering the earth art movement are men. Undoubtedly, land art that has been canonized is revered as magnificent, humbling and insightful, speaking about man’s
relationship to nature and our respectful place within it. These works can also highlight our culture’s destruction of the earth and our endless abuse to it. And by creating and displaying art outside of gallery walls, these artists have probed our assumptions and purpose of the art-as-object and made it’s viewers contemplate alternate intentions for the piece. Only lightly addressed in the dialogue surrounding environmental art is the aggressive display of power that is inherent in these works.

One work that will always be presented and discussed as an integral work of art in the land art movement is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Finished in 1970, the enormous spiral was created in Great Salt Lake, Utah with the help of dump trucks, one tractor, and several hours of manual labor. The phallic work was created out of rocks, earth, and salt crystals scooped from the beach at the beginning of the jetty and although the piece has eroded and changed over time, it still occasionally re-emerges from the lake.*  Smithson demonstrated an aggressive act by forcefully asserting the shape and construct of Spiral Jetty. In a way, he proves his power over the land. In another way, the land exudes a power as well, by eroding and destructing the piece over time. While the piece is, indeed, monumental and breathtaking, Smithson went into Utah and completely disrupted the land and surrounding habitat, displaying that he possessed a certain kind of power at all to commit such an aggressive act towards nature. The creation of it is extremely aggressive in the artist’s assertion of Freudian, masculine power.

Hopscotch, Photo courtesy of the artist.

Staab has a gentler practice and does not appear to disrupt the land he works in as intensely as others have, although he still does alter, and inevitably affect, the landscape. What first comes across in Staab’s work is the creation of a meditative experience for the viewer. Although each piece may be geometrically constructed differently, the sculptures are repetitive in their intention. But his work is challenging, in a way that religious or spiritual practice is challenging. To sit and be with one of his pieces and witness the subtle changes over time takes patience. If one is willing to put in time, perhaps a deeper appreciation of the work is accrued.

But Staab is not absolved from presenting his work with an air of power. First, as previously mentioned, his work incorporates many X symbols, which unavoidably indicates a claim he has over the land. They are subtle, but they are present. Second, the fact that Staab is creating pieces within nature to force viewers to slow down and simply notice the nature surrounding them puts Staab in a hierarchical position where he has some kind of insight that the viewer does not. In this way, he enacts a god-like power that comes across as less aggressive than it does condescending (forcing the viewer to meditate). One shouldn’t assume that a viewer who engages with Staab’s work can’t slow down and engage with nature from their own impulse.

Staab’s intentions both align with and deviate from the canon of land art. He still displays an aggressive, masculine power within his work, but in comparison with others, he does so in a gentler way.  Perhaps Staab is, overall, genuinely invested in wonder and exploration of the land, while his well-known contemporaries harnessed that wonder and exploration to display a power struggle between humans, nature, and the institution of Art itself.  It begs the question: is wonder and exploration enough to engage a contemporary audience in perceiving a deeper reading?

*Kastner, Jeffrey. Wallis, Brian. Land and Environmental Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998.  Kastner, Jeffrey. Wallis, Brian. Land and Environmental Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998.

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