Art’s depiction of the earth has come a long way from the glorifying landscapes of Turner and Constable. Landscape painting as a genre continues, and may well always retain its niche over the conservative mantelpiece, but the ways in which artists choose to represent the awesome power of the earth over its inhabitants, and indeed humanity’s attempts to master its surroundings, have branched out far beyond the picturesque watercolour. Vilma Gold’s The Ground Around brings together the work of fourteen artists who have sought to depict landscape as beautiful, emotive and, at times, both frightening and unpleasant. Spanning the past ninety years and presented in a variety of media, from concrete sculpture to living installation, The Ground Around encourages the viewer to engage with the multitude of ways in which art can portray the fundamental basics of the living earth.
In an age-old genre, it is interesting to see how contemporary artists have rendered landscape “modern” through their choice of subject matter and materials. Two works stand out here, although a mention should also be afforded to two pieces by Paul Nash that are gorgeously atmospheric examples of his work. These highlights are Dan Peterman’s Ratholes (1991-2001) and Waseem Ahmed’s Untitled (2009). Peterman has created two pieces for The Ground Around, both of which are sculptures formed by concrete being poured into tunnels dug by rats. The concrete collected stones, leaves and man-made debris as it flowed, was allowed to set and was then withdrawn from the earth, so only the shape of the hole and the collected detritus remain. Although somewhat lacking aesthetically, this is a novel way of representing the shape of the land and draws on Robert Smithson’s drip works in glue and paint. Peterman expands on the idea of pouring manmade materials onto the land through the secondary removal of the natural element and by placing his sculptures in the gallery rather than representing the experience through photography. In doing so, Peterman has created a piece of land art that doesn’t include the landscape itself at all, leaving the viewer to re-trace his actions.
Waseem Ahmed’s piece, in contrast, is more traditional at first glance, being a small painting of a Rousseau-esque forest with a man in the centre. It is only when you realise that the man is a suicide bomber surrounded by a blast radius of barren earth that the work takes on a more sinister element. We do not often think of terrorism destroying landscape so much as destroying lives, but Ahmed effectively brings the reality of destruction home to the viewer with this work. This is truly the “modern” landscape; a leafy scene infused with the issues of the day in much the same way that the picturesque scenes of the past offered a social commentary.
The Ground Around demonstrates that the landscape genre in its contemporary form is far removed from its seventeenth century heyday; those peaceful scenes of rural England have evolved into Manfred Pernice‘s cement pot full of nettles. Overall, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Constable and his ilk painted the landscapes they experienced and lived with. Walking to and from Vilma Gold, those nettles were the only green I saw, which really brought home how relevant our contemporary attitudes to green space are to our production of contemporary landscape art.
-- Alex Field
All images courtesy Vilma Gold, London
Images: Installation View, 'The Ground Around: Idylls, Earthworks & Thunderbolts', from left to right, Jochen Klein 'Untitled', Dan Peterman 'Rathole', Ian Hamilton Finlay 'Two Scythes (with Keith Brockwell)' and Ull Hohn, both 'untitled'; Installation View, 'The Ground Around: Idylls, Earthworks & Thunderbolts', 2010, from left to right, Carol Rhodes ('Pond Area' and 'Hillside'), Paul Nash ('Coast Scene' and 'A Farm, Wytschete', Norman Dilworth ('Around and About') and Manfred Pernice ('Signal Dose').