Art New England, June/July 1994

"Doing Nature in the 20th Century"


One of the questions artists in the 1990's have to address is, how can an artist represent the natural world in a relevant idiom? We are heirs of a post-cubist, post-representational era of abstract art in which an illusionistic transcription of a bucolic landscape no longer seems possible. In the late twentieth century artists use computers to sketch, rather than traditional pen, pencil, or charcoal and paper. Machines create art: photographs act as substitutes for paintings; nature itself is polluted by industrial waste, atomic rain, and developers' designs.

Many of these conditions prevailed in the late nineteenth century when artists used the landscape to express ideas of majesty, sublimity, man's dominion over nature, the inspiration of the poet, even the allegory of human life. But in the twentieth century the language of abstract art dominates and the realistic landscape as an avant-garde or even current mode of expression no longer seems viable.

Or does it? Recent exhibitions of five artists in the Boston area using nature in significant and original ways suggest that the theme of the landscape and the material of the natural world is still vital....

Prilla Smith Brackett's Marking a Year was the latest in the DeCordova Museum's New Work/New England series. Beginning on the vernal equinox, or first day of spring, 1991, the Cambridge artist made a drawing for each day of the year based on some aspect of nature. Local trees, vegetables, plants and flowers, and also the lush tropical foliage from two trips taken during the year to a jungle research station in Costa Rica and an Earthwatch camp in Madagascar found their way in. Although these drawings at first appeared to be straight, visual transcriptions of the scene or object in front of the artist, there were elements common to all: and interest in the lyric power of line, a fascination with the process of growth, and often an expressive rendering of form. From the weeping beeches of Mount auburn Cemetery to the jungle vines of Costa Rica, tree, plant, flower, and vegetable forms seemed to take on a life of their own, to burgeon and uncoil sinuously. One was reminded of Cézanne's definition of art: "Painting from nature is not copying the objective, it is realizing one’s sensations....."

In all these works nature is a component part, but so is the transforming vision of the artist that includes the important ingredient of the artist's nature as well as the artist's vision. In perhaps an apocryphal story, Hans Hofmann supposedly said to Jackson Pollock, "You will repeat yourself if you do not create from nature." Pollock replied, "I am nature." They were both right.


©Alicia Craig Faxon 1994