Friday, February 25, 2011

Stephanie Snyder's Catalog Essay for Reed Art's Week RAW: Geographies


"3 weeks, 6 earthworks, 1 portable studio, & ALL that lies in between is an itinerant art and performance project by artists Jacinda Russell and Nancy Douthey that re-examines a group of American earthworks created during the 1960s and 70s. For three weeks during the summer of 2009, Russell and Douthey traversed the Western United States in a rented SUV on an irreverent, but celebratory pilgrimage to the following: Robert Smithson’s (1938–1973) Spiral Jetty (1970) and Amarillo Ramp (1973); Nancy Holt’s (b.1938) Sun Tunnels (1973–6); Michael Heizer’s (b.1944) Double Negative (1969); James Turrell’s (b.1943) Roden Crater (1979–present); and Walter De Maria’s (b.1935) Lightning Field (1977).

In many respects “3 weeks” is a work of art captured in the shadows of giants. The picturesque photographs, antic videos, and conceptual artists books that comprise the project’s massive compendium wick their significance from the stoic and achingly monumental works they embrace and critique. Russell and Douthey question the persistence of the earthworks as works of art—under the pressure of the present— replacing their canonical representations (repeated in endless art books and articles) with images that cast the works as theatrical sites, autobiographical backdrops, and art historical “texts” calling for re-interpretation.

In Russell and Douthey’s appraisal, the earthworks become characters in a decidedly feminine and experimental narrative. The artists photograph and film themselves engaged in all sorts of performance actions accompanied by kitschy store-bought props and artful handmade objects. Props take on particular importance as the artists transform the earthworks into ruins by repeatedly re-framing them within the technologies of the present.

At their most theatrical, Russell and Douthey don costumes, make-up, and disguises, such as false mustaches to portray unspecific but stereotypical character types (villains, vagabonds, etc.) both within the landscape and on the journey. In one video sequence, Douthey—dressed and made-up like Anne Hathaway’s cowgirl character from the film Broke Back Mountain—attempts—and fails—to twirl a length of bright synthetic rope, as if she were lassoing a calf. The ersatz lariat falls to her feet like a cast-off dress. In the artists’ truncated, energized video dramas—and there are quite a few—the journey is often represented in inconclusive, interrupted, and incomplete narratives. Here, the impression of space and geography feels far more virtual—subject to sudden shifts—contingent, and decidedly unmonumental. The same is true of many of the photographs. Here, the frame of the landscape is transgressed by unexpected and disturbing textures and colors—billowing pink tulle, for example. In a particularly poignant image, Russell and Douthey straddle the gulley of Heizer’s Double Negative (emphasizing the feminine attributes of the work’s concavity) chatting on a “telephone” made of two tin cans connected by bright pink cord. Communication is a critical theme of the project. On their first road trip together in 2008, the artists played a game in which they screamed “GEODOME!” each time they saw anything resembling a mound or dome. These playful acts of exclamation flutter against the history of the American West’s representation in art and film. What fun to imagine John Wayne screaming “GEODOME!” in the red rock landscape of The Searchers.

Tracking time and space in “3 weeks” is challenging—particularly in the project’s most comprehensive form as an online Blog. At times, it feels like trying to use a GPS system that has been hacked by a karaoke duo masquerading as art historians who are producing a television series about American land art for young girls in China. The narrative drift is palpable. If it weren’t for the conceptual weight of the earthworks, one might just float away into fantasy, or comedy, or absurdity. But that’s OK. There’s nothing better than being on the road."

Stephanie Snyder
Reed College RAW 2011

The catalog will soon be published by Matthew Stadler's Publication Studio. A hand-bound beautiful book coming soon to a Midwestern town near you. Thank you Stephanie and Matthew!

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