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The trouble with twos
‘Modest Sublime’ explores landscape at Harvard
"Modest Sublime"
Carpenter Center, Harvard University, 24 Quincy Street, Cambridge | Through January 5

Related Links

Harvard University's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts' Web site

Ann Craven's official Web site

"Modest Sublime" lives up to half of its title; unfortunately, it’s the first half. Seven artists weigh in with 17 works, but that aspect of its modesty isn’t what’s troubling. Neither is the modest relation between the show’s content and its ambition. (From the show’s wall text: "This group exhibition confronts the contradictory relationships contemporary culture constructs which are internalized as part of our concept of nature and the ideal of landscape — both as a genre and in terms of direct experience.") After all, who really cares whether an exhibit strays from the curator’s ostensible theme if the art proves compelling?

No, the modesty that gets in the way of "Modest Sublime" is its abhorrence of risk, its emotional and visual circumspection. With a boldness not to be found in many of the show’s paintings or sculptures, the show’s press material declares, "Over the past three years painting has continued to assert itself as a remarkably flexible medium." Is there a three-year period in the last thousand years when painting didn’t assert itself as a flexible medium? The release continues, "The works of artists included redefine what contemporary landscape painting can be and recognize that landscapes are a hybrid of both nature and culture." Nonsense. The styles vary, but the works are as traditional as the alphabet; further, landscapes as hybrids of nature and culture go back at least as far to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. "Modest Sublime" might just as easily have been called "Politeness Reigns."

Much of the exhibit (which has been organized by the Carpenter Center’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies) appears to have been conceived as a series of matching pairs — two works by the same artist on the same subject matter, often of the same overblown size. When the pairs really do match — when they’re mirror images of each other, like socks or pant legs — then there’s no tension between the frames, no pricking of interest to detect differences, no play. Monet’s haystacks and cathedrals and water lilies captivate not because they’re identical but because they differ.

Take Ann Craven’s oil diptych Pink Twig/Black Twig. Each of its huge (60x48) panels puts forward a leafless, bamboo-like branch in the lower half that’s set against a backdrop of upright tulips. The tulips are surrounded by a pink wash on the left and a black wash on the right. I suspect there’s an "idea" driving the composition: the branch has a manufactured look (it appears to sport thin wire coils wrapping it at various junctures), and the cut flowers are rendered in a dreamy inarticulateness suggesting that in both instances the natural world has been reduced to florist fare and fake stems, shrunken and been degraded. Charles Simic’s quip that it’s the ambition of every honest cliché to make its way into a great poem speaks to the legitimacy of employing hackneyed concepts. The problem here is the inertness of the imagery, the lollipop colors on the left that offer little more than passing sweetness and the shadowy, dark colors on the right that are no spookier than a Halloween costume. Marilyn Manson could sing "Tiptoe through the Tulips" at an Earth Day concert and it still wouldn’t be a protest song. Similarly huge (72x54), Craven’s other contribution, Mirrored Oriental Red, depicts two identical scarlet tanagers with their heads tilted back as they’re about to ingest a gumdrop-red cherry. It looks like a children’s-book illustration, fuzzy and cute. What it’s doing in "Modest Sublime" I can’t imagine.

But all’s not lost. Brady Dollarhide’s two big acrylic paintings, Cursed or Worse (84x64) and I’m So into You (72x84), enjoy a certain Twilight Zone energy with their black silhouettes of wires and fences and telephone polls that reach across expanses of unnaturally colored sky. In Cursed or Worse, a telephone poll and a network of haphazard phone wires appear against a post-nuclear heaven that moves from a deep orange in its lower altitudes to a mustard yellow above. Off to the lower left, another, denser silhouette appears — it resembles an after-image of pilings you might see in a shipyard. In I’m So into You, a broken tree lies at the bottom of a ravine. On the left, a ramshackle picket fence topples down a steep embankment toward the tree; on the right, phone wires extend across a multi-hued sunset. Although he works in acrylic, Dollarhide’s paintings have the appearance of finely shaped cut-outs, pitch-black, razor-sharp. By positioning thin, linear forms against tremendous stretches of molten sky, he creates a provocative sense of movement — it’s at once inert and kinetic, like the birth of a stillborn child. The artist also able creates a resonant spirit of absence — symbols of home and human communication belong to places of upheaval and chasms of emptiness.

Using different motifs, approaches, and subject matter and enjoying varying levels of success, Todd Hebert and Bart Domburg also concern themselves with landscapes that evoke human absence, where nature represents the human condition. Unique in the show is Hebert’s humor. The crudely fashioned snowman in Around Noon, yet another gigantic piece (72x84), has mere indentations for nose and mouth and eyes; for arms, two hair-thin twigs jut out from either side parallel with the snow-covered ground. Hebert works acrylic into near-photorealism — the hazy background of trees and blue sky seems out of focus whereas Frosty and his surrounding white terrain appear sharp, present, real.

Around Noon takes on a richer meaning once you’ve seen the show’s other Hebert painting, which takes up an appropriate position on an opposite wall. New Morning depicts the same three-tiered snowman, but this time he’s out of his element. As the day dawns, the figure appears off in the distance and surrounded by water on a luminous yellow beach, as if he were headed out for a morning swim. His head eclipses the rising sun, and that creates a pulsing halo around his icy cranium. The effect is both comical and poignant: the snowman as Christ figure. And his preposterous grandeur makes him not just a clown but a symbol of futile dignity. It’s as if everything we built had no more permanence than a snowman facing the incoming tide.

Bart Domburg’s oil Die Diaspora III is the largest work here and one of the few to justify its massive scale (70x98). It looks like an aerial shot of a tundra or desert — a limitless, brown expanse of desiccated earth punctuated by irregular, horizontal rows of faintly green tufts of grass. You’d expect it to have a forlorn and unsettling feel, but it turns out to be oddly clinical; it reads like a documentary, a study in texture and perspective more than a dramatic evocation of the earth. Sarah Bedford’s colorful and fantastic-image-packed acrylics, flower collages by Laura Stein that call to mind the opening credits of Monty Python, and Debora Warner’s tall felt flowers in matching vases round out "Modest Sublime."

Issue Date: November 18 - 24, 2005
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