Michael Paha, "Memories of a Place I Think I've Been or Wanted to Be," and "Skeet McAuley: Photographs," June 10-July 30, 1999, at Feigen Contemporary, 535 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
Can a contemporary artist still find inspiration in landscape? According to the summer exhibition at Feigen Contemporary, the answer is yes. Chicago artist Michael Paha has installed an extensive network of plant-and-animal-filled terrariums in the gallery, while Los Angeles-based Skeet McAuley has large-scale nature photographs on view.
A preparator at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, Paha has made sculpture with terrariums for some time. (This is his first gallery show in New York, though he exhibited at the Whitney Museum Philip Morris Branch and has shown for several years at Perimeter in Chicago). The installation is an ecosystem in itself, a series of aquariums, terrariums, shelves, troughs with drains and a sink, all filled with sand, rocks, water, guppies and plants, and connected by white plastic pipes through which water is constantly recycled by a pump. The flowing water gurgles through the system, making abstract patterns in the sand, carrying sediment through the pipes, depositing it along the way.
Paha calls the work an "arsarium," in a conflation of the Latin roots for "art" and "instrument." Both terrariums and aquariums were first popularized in the mid-19th century in Britain, allowing people to study nature, supposedly without disturbing it. A shelf with old books on natural history, like The Psychic Life of Insects, ground the project in history, and seem to mock the idea that nature is real, a truth that can be studied and known.
Skeet McAuley shows nine Fujichromes made since 1991. Four are of golf courses in Arizona, California and Hawaii, and five are monumentally scaled close-ups of bonsai trees and suiseki stones. The golf course photographs measure 7 X 2 1/2 feet (one is vertical), and recall the tradition of panoramic landscapes that originated with 17th-century Dutch painting.
McAuley has struck a perfect balance between the artificial and natural. In Desert Mtn. (Geronimo), Scottsdale, AZ, 13th Tee, the only obvious signs of human intervention are tire tracks in the sand and an irrigation spout in the distance. Closer inspection, however, reveals seams of laid sod. It becomes clear that the greens of the golf course are a sort of meta-landscape covering the shelves of gravel and brush that dominate this area of the West.
Like the golf course itself, these photographs satisfy a desire to perceive the world in a picturesque mode. Taken in the early hours of the morning, the golf courses are depopulated, rendered pristine and calm before the onslaught of players at the first tee.
McAuley's images of bonsai trees and suiseki stones have been photographed in an inky void, and brightly lit from above as if to emulate sunlight. Measuring over four feet tall, the photos show highly detailed, seemingly giant objects whose true scale is revealed only by their ceramic bases. The images take carefully manicured forests or elaborate natural rock formations and present them as still lifes. As in Paha's terrarium sculptures, nature becomes a construct marked by controlled and temporary brilliance.
JASON ROSENFELD is a New York based art historian.