Brochure essay for

NATURE: Contemporary Art and the Natural World

Curated by Steven Alexander

Works by: Per Kirkeby, Eugene Leroy, Maya Lin, Judy Pfaff, Milton Resnick, Susan Rothenberg, Joan Snyder, Pat Steir, Don Van Vliet, Terry Winters

Contemporary Gallery, Marywood University, 2000

NATURE: Contemporary Art and the Natural World

What birds plunge through is not the intimate space

in which you see all forms intensified.

(Out in the Open, you would be denied

your self, would disappear into that vastness.)

Rainer Maria Rilke

It has been widely asserted that humanity has so totally altered the natural world that Nature now can only be experienced in cultural terms, as a cultural construct. Contemporary reality is flooded with unrelated images which float across our consciousness in an endless stream of random associations. The visual arts have been infused with myriad new technologies and complex layers of textual theory. Yet when we strip away the layers of culture to the bare bones of human existence, we find human beings in a perpetual state of vulnerability and alienation from the natural world, unable to integrate, in constant search of meaningful experience.

If we imagine, as Barnett Newman did, that the first moment of human civilization came in the form of a prehistoric existential moan at the realization of our separateness from that teeming flux out there, then we may regard all human cultural history as an ongoing dialogue between human sensibility and the inherent uncertainty of the natural world. It is our seemingly innate sense of exposure, displacement and awe in the face of Nature's mysteries which has been a catalyst for all forms of visual expression. Visual language developed as an attempt to address or mediate this gap between ourselves and the rest of Nature, to somehow bring us into closer relation to the physical and metaphysical forces of the world.

Origins of this sort of activity may be traced to the paleolithic shamans whose role it was to explore the mysteries of the natural world, and through various devices of ritual including painting, object-making, dance and incantation, bring the people of that culture into closer harmony with Nature, whether that meant being free of disease or conflict, or being successful in the quest for food. The shamanic practice of penetrating the veneer of day-to-day reality, of exploring a world of relations that is invisible or inaccessible to most people, corresponds directly to the operations of many contemporary artists, from painters to performers. It may in fact be a heightened sensitivity to those "invisible" aspects of reality which compels one to become an artist in the first place. And it is a total immersion in that teeming world of essences and resonances which unites the artists in this exhibition.

However, these renowned artists are not primal healers, but contemporary creators who possess a finely tuned, well seasoned aesthetic sophistication. It is through total involvement in regenerative process, visual metaphor, and the entire sphere of sensibility and sensuality that these artists achieve a true engagement with the natural world. The products of their explorations are not literal transcriptions or narrative depictions, but collections of resonances, embodiments of the artists' masterful melding of mind, body and material. These works do not imitate Nature, but exist independently as chunks of reality, deeply felt and eloquently articulated. They are moments in the ongoing creative lives of the artists; lives devoted to transfiguration of elemental experience.

The artists in this exhibition are not part of a group or movement or trend. What we see is the work of ten individuals, the manifestations of ten sensibilities. They were chosen in this case for the directness of their processes, the inherent truth in the realities they create, and the sheer power and presence of the objects they make. All regarded internationally as among the most important artists working today, they have inspired generations of younger artists, and continue to work at the height of their powers. It is natural to assume that this work is particularly of the present moment, that it is at least in part representative of the deepest aspects of our current cultural climate, which of course it is. But, if we allow our consciousness to merge with the impulses present in these works, we find ourselves suddenly transported, scanning across the cultural terrain of human history, all the way back to the moment of that first moan.

Steven Alexander 2000