A Harsh Discipline

John Haber
in New York City

James Benning and Peter Hutton

Matthew Jensen and Zoe Leonard

For James Benning and Peter Hutton, "Nature Is a Discipline." It can be a harsh discipline at that, and humanity can be even worse.

As filmmakers, they follow its demands on humans who try to cross it. Matthew Jensen does much the same in photography, except that he imposes its demands on himself. Both cross difficult landscapes in real time, subject to technology and globalization. Nature is a discipline, but could it also be vanishing? Zoe Leonard finds it proliferating, but in the space of human waste. Matthew Jensen's Sun Halo, Greyhound to DC #3 (Yancey Richardson, 2014)

Three if by sea

Discipline takes its time, much like nature. James Benning and Peter Hutton have been working separately for decades, and Hutton's At Sea alone was a task spanning three years, completed in 2007. On screen it can seem to take a lifetime. It shows the construction and commissioning of a cargo ship, a sea voyage seemingly without a destination that could bring it to an end, and the decommissioning and destruction of a ship already rusted as if left over from another era. One wants to see the three-channel video as a single life history, perhaps an allegory of polluting ashes to ashes, but few on a first viewing will take in more than a fraction of its full hour. One instead enters and leaves its looping narrative much like any episode in the course of a human life.

It also takes space. The three channels track ships in South Korea, the northern Atlantic, and India. Hutton's Three Landscapes from 2013 span the salt flats of Ethiopia, a bridge in Detroit, and a farm in New York's Hudson Valley, and Benning's 2010 Tulare Road takes the long view down a highway in California. It plunges from the left deep into the center of one's field of vision, never quite converging to its vanishing point but only vanishing. The move from sixteen-millimeter film to high-definition video allows each artist to adapt to the space of the gallery as well. The course of the ships and the highway expand as needed to fill single walls of distinct dimensions, while the remaining video takes the three walls of the gallery's smaller flagship—each at once site specific and all over the planet.

It takes discipline even to locate the narratives in time and space. One wants to see the three highways as a single location, from a deep mist to clouds never quite breaking over a clearer sky, but all Benning promises is a single composition, give or take the weather and the changing reddish gray of soil. One wants to see Three Landscapes as a single triumphant history of civilization, from a desert crossed by camels to lush turf crossed by modern agricultural equipment. In between, the man on an industrial bridge looks right out of a silent comedy—or perhaps a photograph by Lewis Hine or Marc Riboud from the last century—but, no, this is the post-industrial void of a bankrupt Detroit. One may first encounter the northern Atlantic as nothing more than bands of light or as a colored grid half dissolved in rain. One is on-board all the same behind the glass of a command center, the colored rectangles belong to the ship's deck, and the churning waves are its wake.

Time itself seems to run in slow motion. It takes time for men to break up chunks of rock salt or a train of camels to cross the horizon. It takes time for a man to cross the industrial bridge or for the ship to reach the horizon, assuming they ever will. The motion of a weight on a line, whether a plumb line or a wrecking ball, moves more slowly still. When a car hurtles past on the otherwise empty highway, its pace is startling. Hutton disrupts time further by slipping now and again into black and white—or by letting channels fade to black.

Not that people are any more aware than usual of the discipline or the disturbances. They celebrate the ship's commissioning with banners, confetti, and a pose for the camera. (It is the Toledo Spirit, which the shot mostly reduces, rather optimistically, to SPIRIT.) They walk up to the rusted hull unconcerned for how badly it dwarfs them. Cars speed right along. Still, work is not getting any easier, and a wrecking crew sharing a rope might pass for slaves.

Nature here is beautiful but frightening, and humanity is even worse—not least because nature here is in the service of humanity. The show takes its title from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the curator, Ed Halter, quotes Henry David Thoreau: "What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking at what is to be seen?" Then again, when Thoreau says that looking means being "forever on the alert," he does not sound all that comforting. Regardless, this is not Walden Pond and the Romantic sublime, the rural landscape that encouraged Civil War America and the Hudson River School, but rather the machinery of globalization. Benning and Hutton attend to its colors and moods well after it has lost its transcendence.

Follow the sun

Matthew Jensen crossed the continental United States to follow the sun. He found it on Google Street View, in the tool's early days, shining directly into the camera. He faced it again on the bus, hovering behind telephone lines as if caught by their wires. But was he really seeking only light? Each of the series in "Feels Like Real" asserts a personal connection, but to places always just out of reach. With the sun in his eyes, they are also necessarily difficult to see.

He caught the sun from the windows of an airplane, dispersing through clouds above and illuminating rivers, canals, and highways below. He allowed it to bleach out the landscape in winter walks on foot. When he photographs bundles of sticks from a single walk, he places them on a bleached white background himself. He emulates the sun, too, with the four panels of Walking Sticks. Two wooden posts in an undistinguished clearing shift in position relative to one another, but only slightly. He might have passed them as slowly as the sun in the sky.

The personal connection enters with Jensen's sheer obsessiveness. These are his projects and his travels, limited only by space and time. The number of winter walks matches the days in a month, and the bus trips for Rainbow Round the Sun add up, he says, to some two-hundred and twenty hours of "active studio time"—in other words, just one ride each week between New York and Washington, D.C., over the course of a year. The forty-nine states display in five long rows, but with a gap at the lower-right corner. He had not crossed to Hawaii, but for good reason: neither, back then, had Google Street View.

The connection extends to a sense of place. From utility lines to rural and suburban street views, everything has a comforting familiarity. Yet everything, too, remains at a distance, devoid of life. Neighborhoods in Google Street View look pretty much alike, with hardly a trace of local identity, washed out by the sun. Jensen never visited them anyway. He photographed the bundled twigs on a single farm in July, on commission for the Brandywine Museum of Art, but they might be for sale in any number of New England gift shops.

Other photographers have had their drive-by shootings. Robert Frank created The Americans, Walker Evans his American Photographs. Lee Friedlander saw America by Car, much as Jensen tracked America's northeast corridor by bus and Emmet Gowin crossed the continent by air. And he, too, begins with the documentary impulse—only to refuse documentation. The shots from the air approach abstraction in black and white. One could mistake them for jellyfish.

Jensen prefers the sun and sky to mere humanity, but he sees art and nature alike as shaped by infrastructure and technology. Seen from a plane and bus, it lies behind glass, like a museum specimen. The sun itself, he argues, now competes for access to the entire planet with Google. Google, in turn, levels differences in what was once small-town America, even as it keeps travelers from getting lost. The shifts from image to image are subtle, but change in the landscape is not. You would have to have sun in your eyes to miss it.

What a waste

For more than ten years, starting in 1998, Zoe Leonard photographed not suburban sprawl, with its planned waste for the privileged few, but the greater ravages of urban life. Is there a greater waste of space than the architecture of the Museum of Modern Art? For her there is, lying everywhere around her. From New York to Eastern Europe, Africa, Cuba, and Mexico, she found shuttered storefronts and fallen marquees, makeshift signs and dated logos, obsolete computers and manual typewriters. Above all, she found everything and anything left out for trash or for sale. And who knows but that someone is buying.

Leonard has every right to judge wasted space, for the results occupy MoMA's atrium, where Martha Rosler, Marina Abramovic, Gabriel Orozco, Julien Isaac, Jennifer Bartlett with Rhapsody, and more have come to grief before her. It resembles less a gallery than the perpetual shopping mall of a global city, like the "Gulf futurism" of Sophia Al-Maria. Leonard, though, can claim a closer fit. Her Analogue, now in the museum's collection, can even claim the trappings of urban efficiency—the work's more than four hundred photos arranged in the tight grids of twenty-five "chapters." (I lost count at twenty-three.) They do not quite tame the atrium, which reduces them to postage stamps, but they do fill it.

The series is both a tribute and a warning. It begins on the Lower East Side, where she lived, and it has the pulse and variety of a city walk. Bundles of materials present tapestries of color. Bags of grain attest to the planet's diversity. Still, Leonard means to document displacement and loss in an age of globalization. One can never know from the images just what is where.

Analogue also helps make sense of her work as a whole. Like many today, Leonard moves easily, maybe even too easily, between subjects and media. She has left out blue suitcases, mounted a tree on scaffolding, photographed a model of New York as if flying above it, and haunted the city with a wax anatomical model. For the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the museum's last on Madison Avenue, she captured its surroundings with a camera obscura. One can see her as always on the move, while calling attention to the fragile and fleeting context that she leaves behind. For Analogue she adopts means that others have left behind as well, with a 1940s Rolleiflex camera—a twin-lens instrument, like a classic Kodak but higher in quality.

The curators, Roxana Marcoci with Drew Sawyer, compare the results to Rosler's documentation of real estate on the Bowery, Los Angeles for Ed Ruscha, Paris for Eugene Atget, or America for Walker Evans. Yet Leonard has little interest in particulars or preservation. She does not have Rosler's outrage, Ruscha's dispassion, or Atget's cultivated beauty. She has no individuals in view at all. She comes closest to Evans when he collects penny pictures and postcards. Consider, though, another model entirely, in Charles Baudelaire.

In "The Painter of Modern Life," the French poet saw the key to the present in cities—and in the flâneur, or idler, exploring them. "For the perfect flâneur," he wrote, "for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite." Leonard is looking for analogs, in analog media, like Baudelaire with the entire world at his feet. Like globalization, Analogue can be drab and leveling. It misses the sheer presence of her previous installations, in the present. Yet it has the charm of the familiar in its planet-wide space of waste.

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James Benning and Peter Hutton ran at Miguel Abreu through March 8, 2015, Matthew Jensen at Yancey Richardson through June 20, and Zoe Leonard at The Museum of Modern Art through August 30. The review of Jensen first appeared in a slightly different form in New York Photo Review and the review of Leonard in Artillery.


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