A Museum's Natural History

John Haber
in New York City

Wave Hill: Recapturing the Scenic Wilds

Hilary Lorenz, David McQueen, Tom Pnini, and John Newsom

Few enclaves within New York take one as far from the city as Wave Hill in the Bronx. As an exhibition puts it, it is "Recapturing the Scenic Wilds," and among its resources is the museum. Meanwhile Hilary Lorenz and, in the galleries, David McQueen and Tom Pnini begin their own voyages into the nation's interior and off-shore. And John Newsom, for one, positively dares one to capture or to escape the scenic wild.

One goes to Wave Hill for mansions in the park, sunlit lawns and wooded trails, a well-tended garden, and the view across the Hudson, where the George Washington Bridge to the south looks far away. One takes the subway to its very last stop and then a long walk or shuttle bus up the hill, past private streets and stone houses, across the highway toward the river, and into twenty-eight acres of a former estate. One could have left such urban necessities as art behind. Does museum art based on museums of natural history seem preposterous? 'Richard Barnes's Animal Logic: Smithsonian Ape (Wave Hill Glyndor Gallery, 2008)All the more so when it makes clear how much is staged or stuffed. Is that what a museum or gallery does—to recreate or threaten to obliterate what lies before one's eyes?

Something wild

As a matter of fact, yes, and "Recapturing the Scenic Wilds" take just that as its theme at the very site where Jackie Ferrara erected her Wave Hill Project—or of what another show on scenic wilds will call "Flora Fantastica!" It looks behind the scenes at museums of natural history, where nature seems both intensely real and painfully artificial. More to the point, it is hard to tell the difference. The show, though, is much funnier than that sounds, and what would art be without a little artifice? What would it be, too, so long after Robert Rauschenberg and his Rauschenberg's stuffed goat, without a decent dead animal? And what would nature be without the inevitability of death?

Art here is wanted, dead or alive. Hugh Hayden leaves open whether it is a lavish tribute to wildlife or a luxury good. He fashions what look like John James Audubon's birds in their habitats, but of actual feathers over old prints. A black bear rears on its pedestal, with the chance for real men to rear back. Ruth Marshall's pelt is actually a textile, and the songs to accompany Jessica Segall's taxidermy dove, sparrow, and starling are definitely not birdcalls. Dana Levy released live creatures into cases with specimens, as if both were just half dead.

Is this carrying coals to Newcastle? (Never mind that the phrase refers to the Industrial Revolution.) Maybe, and the site almost drowns out a more personal recreation from Hilary Lorenz. A hiker and runner, she turns the gallery's sunroom into a record of her wanderings, including another rearing bear that I hope she successfully avoided. Lorenz has collaborated with poets on artist's books, in the bright colors of a sunny day. Her linoleum block prints bear a distinctive broad line in more muted colors, with one sheet for each leaf of a forested wall.

Lorenz calls it Nomadic Geographies, but the whole point of the group show is staying put. Dioramas only look still able to move, if that. The very term natural history goes back to when Teddy Roosevelt as president made conservation a priority. And Roosevelt's father helped found the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Here Roosevelt, a former resident of Wave Hill, looms over all, but never fully in the present. Rather, much of the art is about setting up or taking down.

Mark Dion even sends the shipping containers, modeled after a 1909 scientific expedition to Asia. Dion, whose Rescue Archaeology treated the demolition underlying MoMA's 2004 expansion as a science project, is plainly suspicious of an art museum as a cabinet of curiosities, so do not be surprised if his blond-wood pâpier-maché also includes a rifle and an axe. Richard Barnes finds a museum staffer sleeping next to a plastic-wrapped ungulate, as if both were left over from the set. He also photographs a taxidermy ape still in its crate as if impaled alive. Alexa Hoyer's photos close in on the flora behind a display case's main actors, lending them the greater life. Lori Nix photographs her own miniature dioramas like the glistening memories of museums past.

And then there is Roosevelt, frozen in bronze at the American Museum of Natural History. Liselot van der Heijden also photographs museum-goers in silhouette, like shadows across the wilderness. In her video, visitors ignore Roosevelt's statue, which looks straight forward, as if returning from the past to judge his legacy. The bronze could pass for a deep tan acquired in the wild—or for African American flesh tones. He might be the servant that made all this possible, but that privileged eyes ignore. He might, in fact, stand for art and science.

One if by land

If art is a beacon in a dark, uncertain world, David McQueen offers a concise history of art. More than half a dozen lighthouses fill a room, multiplying their presence with one another's shadow. Each has shed everything but its mechanism, and each rises on a black pole far higher than its slim outline would predict, the better for their rotating mirrors to cast the light. One can almost hear them turn, in the deep quiet of "a once imagined ocean." An additional static mechanism illuminates a spare wall sketch of the night sea and sky. One can feel oneself at sea.

McQueen does not promise to navigate the darkness, not when his beacons multiply every which way. For Socrates Sculpture Park on the Queens waterfront, he recreated the cabin of a lighthouse at closer to life scale, but fallen like a forgotten relic from an older New York. Still, he has a fondness for tools of the trade. He delights in sextants and pointers, hand-crafted and reimagined in metal and wood. They could pass for more than a century's worth of the real thing. They are, as the title of one has it, ". . .sounding the depths of this ocean, sinking into the stars above."

They seem as old as the sea for Winslow Homer. The quotation marks and ellipses are the artist's, and one expects to find the words in a novel as weighty, treacherous, and American as Moby Dick. And maybe one can, although I failed. Other works combine a shipbuilder's craft with the life of the open sea. David McQueen's 'eclipses' or 'measuring the volume of our lost potential' (Kim Foster gallery, 2013)Their blond wood bulges and twists, somewhere between a ship's underbelly and what it hunts. To quote another title, "I was either the boat or the whale."

Modernism often stripped away old stories like these, in favor of the wordless and the literal. And seascapes are still rarer than one might expect, although Jennifer Wynne Reeves has used them as metaphors for a stormy life. As craftsperson and visionary, McQueen is decidedly Romantic. Other model lighthouses stand slim and tall, and a fleet of boats circles about like a herd of white sharks. I appreciated most, though, the kinetic sculpture reduced to its play of mirrors. The perilous darkness of real space cuts through the nostalgia.

Tom Pnini is a traveler, too. The Israeli artist spent a year at the New England Railroad Museum, with its thirty-five miles of tracks. He looks back to silent comedy as well. A split screen pairs Buster Keaton on the rails with a recreation starring the museum's railway station director. Its disjunction recalls stereoscopy, and so do Pnini's collage watercolors. They point to both travel and the past.

While you are hunting for 3D glasses, you can also take in Ballade to the Double, a four-channel video journey. Each channel hurtles down the very same passage, but at a different season of the year. It has its interruptions, like one for a girl playing on the tracks—with, as it happens, a model locomotive. Mostly, though, its terrors come from the plummeting into depth. They also make one attend to the New England landscape. A video road into the changing seasons for David Hockney should offer half as vivid an opening onto time and nature.

Kingdom come

John Newsom finds the animal kingdom formidable indeed, and he would love to take on its power. He is getting better at it, too, but then neither he nor his subjects are above boasting. A hummingbird spreads its wings, with the breadth and confidence of an eagle. Panthers, up to two to a canvas, dare you to engage the yellow gleam of their eyes. Leopards, too, along with Bengal tigers take pride in their stares—the tigers in black and white. Its swirl behind them draws the undergrowth into the patterns of their fur and muscular flesh.

Nature here is both exotic and eerily familiar. Maybe it has to be for an artist born in the midwest and based in New York, where he obtained his MFA. Even his titles are larger than life. A leopard has its Divine Abode and a tiger its Harbor in the Tempest or Pride of Place. An elk lies plaintively in tall grass and in Valiant Repose. Dark becomes light for the hummingbird as Daybreaker and for still another tiger in Midday at Midnight.

A vision this over the top may owe something to Romanticism, when Europe was making art from its colonization of Africa and Asia, and something to Disney. Still, it is impressively lush. It makes good use of color, as in the blue-black of the panthers, and maybe even better use of that black and white. It is also quite realistic, or at least I think so, but then what does a city boy like me know about things beyond my control? It can even have a sense of humor, although that, too, comes with a boast. A butterfly, Simultaneous Singularity, surely alludes to the old line about the flap of an insect wing's altering the course of the planet.

Creatures all press up against the picture plane, because that is where the action is. So, for that matter, does Newsom. He departs from the straight-ahead views for that butterfly in profile, so that the black and yellow of its wings can hold the picture plane as well. He also treats the background as abstract painting, whether to flatten things further or as a metaphor for the enigma of the jungle. It includes thick patches of oil seemingly flung at the canvas, most often in white, interrupted by muter triangles more fully in the plane. He paints large, and he packs as much on a gallery wall as it will hold, as if to blow the entire animal kingdom to kingdom come.

Bianca Beck, too, believes in the raw energy of nature, but she does not look half so far to find it. Her materials even include a mirror. They also include human hair and found wood scarred by carving and burning, like primal relics of herself. Paintings run to the dark tones and expressive imagery of Art Brut or Tachism, whether as faces, human bodies, or abstractions. Like her, Josh Brand looks for physical and psychological depth in shallow surfaces, chiefly in photography. A hand reaches out from amid the blur as if in one last effort of survival, shot through with light.

They sound more literal and heavy-handed than they are. It helps that one can ignore the carvings to focus on Beck at her best, in oil on wood. It helps, too, to bring them together like a single body of work. One can see them not as painter and photographer, but a continuum of mixed media, with Brand making use of collage as well. What might easily be pretentious becomes lush and ominous, and what might easily be vagueness becomes ambiguity. The presences become that much closer as well—close enough, perhaps, to recapture the scenic wild.

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"Recapturing the Scenic Wilds" and Hilary Lorenz ran at Wave Hill's Glyndor Gallery through December 7, 2014, David McQueen at Kim Foster through October 11, Tom Pnini at Lesley Heller through October 12, and David Hockney at Pace through November 1. John Newsom ran at Marc Straus through March 22, 2015, Bianca Beck and Josh Brand at Rachel Uffner through April 12.


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