After touring some national parks in the Southwest a few summers ago, I hatched a concept for an artificial park in which manmade materials would be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. Tourists would travel great distances to ooh and aah over Astroturf prairies, to camp with their families beneath rubber stalactites and ramble over Styrofoam mountain ranges.
Apparently French philosopher Jean Baudrillard had beaten me to it. Monsieur B. diagnosed the postmodern affliction of people being eagerly duped by simulations (images) and simulacra (signs), those mythological models we happily consume but which have no referent or origin in reality. He predicted that our relationship with reality would inevitably break down. Nature with a capital N, of the nineteenth-century romantic variety, would no longer be available.
Presented by Independent Curators International and curated by Mary-Kay Lombino, "UnNaturally," on view at the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum, presents 43 works by fifteen contemporary artists who unabashedly embrace the illusory and unstable beauty of the artificial environment.
Photography, that once-reliable medium for capturing nature, has long since been exposed as a fraud, a capricious lens that distorts with almost as much subjectivity as the human eye. The photographers in "UnNaturally" play with perceptual expectations of verisimilitude on the part of the viewer, documenting the ersatz, and boldly exposing their fakery for all to see. In fact the fakery has become the subject.
Gregory Crewdson, the paterfamilias of the exhibition, has spawned an entire school of photography from his base as a professor at Yale, commanding production budgets and processes more akin to a Hollywood auteur than a mere man with a camera. His three digital prints from "The Twilight Series" testify to nature's power to overwhelm and disrupt via escapist fantasy or lurid destruction. In Crewdson's work, natural events commonly are metaphors for psychic disjunction. Florida residents ought to be conversant with these themes of late, living as we do at the border of encroaching tropical landscapes, amid lush and mysterious flowering plants, not to mention unpredictable hurricanes. Crewdson's staged psychodramas resemble painted illustrations from a garish storybook, the characters in way over their heads as they are victimized by nature's outsized gestures. A birch trunk penetrates a bedroom through a gash in the roof. A huge flowered vine, à la Jack and the Beanstalk, compels a motorist to stop, strip to his underwear, and climb it. Plant behavior easily upstages the human in Crewdson's imagery. Hapless humans loiter aimlessly, drained of life, positively lackluster beside the vivid, hyper-real botanicals.
Marc Quinn's Garden2 is a true nature morte, photographs of flowers that have been submerged in silicon in order to conserve for eternity the intensity of their living colors, even though they are dead. Their oversaturated, jarring hues resemble color TV sets when the color is out of whack. Nicoletta Munroe's eerily lit cibachrome print, Cherry Blossom III (Stage Right), is lovely and saccharine, perhaps because it is not cherry blossoms in bloom at all, but a shot of false blooms on the set of a daytime television show in Los Angeles. Allan deSouza's photographs from the "Terrain" series similarly monkey with our perceptions of landscape and bodyscape, playing into our confusion with flesh-colored ground sporting patches of what appear to be eyelashes and body hair.
Some works replicate single specimens rather than panoramas of nature, none as lovingly as Keith Edmier's. His Keith's Paphiopedilum (Version One) is a lone orchid painstakingly sculpted of dental acrylic with acrylic paint. Roxy Paine's fake mushrooms, Psilocybe Cubensis Tray, are convincing, lifelike approximations of psychedelic mushrooms. These rely on ironic associations in the mind of the viewer to complete their meaning, while Paine's Tapioca Slime Painting is an elegant burlesque of abstract gestural painting, the spontaneous spread of fungus across the blank canvas substituting for the heroic daubs of the artist.
We humans have always been awestruck by the sheer variety of natural forms, in which we alternately divine evidence of "intelligent design" or the timely chaos theory. The endless permutations of natural forms, patterns, colors, surface textures, and structures feed the human obsession with taxonomy. Frances Whitehead responds to the loveliness of poppy blooms with the rigor of an industrial designer. Her "Metamohn" project of prints and sculptures made by ultra-high-tech stereo lithography are incredibly ethereal and solid at the same time. Whitehead's poppies are generated by software that renders in three dimensions. The data is then translated by a rapid-prototyping machine into her elegant epoxy-resin objects.
Some of the elaborate processes and materials used by the artists represented in "UnNaturally" are byproducts of the film industry's technological sophistry, which has spawned legions of specialized technicians adept at rendering illusions in any material. These are the Gothic-cathedral craftsmen of our time, artisans who can render the flesh of a Martian as it appears to melt, who can simulate the severed hand of a cyborg, who can craft a giant mushroom.
Artists often describe their endeavors as the creation of alternate worlds. The artists in "UnNaturally" take this credo literally. In doing so they flirt with kitsch, emptying authentic meaning from real objects and images and replacing it with fake tokens -- Baudrillard's simulacra. A genuine sensory experience of nature may resume when you exit the Lowe Museum's galleries. Or you can wait until after you've seen the latest installment of the Nature Channel on cable television.
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