Nature has had many different symbolic meanings over time. From the embodiment of threatening, unfettered savagery to the pure manifestation of the glory of God, landscape has played many roles in American art and literature. One of the high points of American landscape was during the early nineteenth century, when the Hudson River School artists created romantic, sweeping vistas of mountains, forests and waterways as a symbol of the land’s largess and the overall excellence of America the Beautiful.
Untitled (Fall in Yosemite)
oil on canvas
In their travels around the country, researching contemporary artists for the upcoming exhibition State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, Crystal Bridges President Don Bacigalupi and Assistant Curator Chad Alligood have encountered a number of artists who are carrying forward the traditions of the American landscape in varied ways. Among them is Boston artist Cobi Moules, whose recent work deliberately harks back to the American landscape tradition of the Hudson River School, but with a modern and very personal twist.
Following a three-month solo trip across the United States to visit a number of national parks and iconic American landscapes, Moules began making a series of paintings in which he featured multiple images of himself in the natural settings. Though the landscapes are rendered with gorgeous attention to detail, they become backdrops to the self-portraits in the foreground: all dressed identically, exploring the scene with all the reverence of seventh-graders on a field trip.
Moules, who grew up transgendered in a Christian setting where his identity was at odds with the surrounding culture, considers his work a way of “renegotiating” his relationship with the ideas of gender, identity, and Christian faith.
“I had been looking at the Hudson River School painters quite significantly and thinking about the relationship between the individual and the landscape,” Moules explained. “ [I was exploring] these ideas of the people [in the Hudson River School paintings] being very tiny, and having the landscape being very overwhelming as a manifestation of God….By placing myself in such a mass quantity in these spaces, [I’m] trying to shift the landscape’s weight a little bit and allowing these [paintings] to become this playground where I’m exploring myself in it, exploring the landscape, becoming part of nature.”
The work underscores our changing relationships to both the natural world and religion, as the one becomes increasingly more accessible and comprehensible and the other perhaps less so.
In this week’s Huffington Post blog, Crystal Bridges President Don Bacigalupi shares a short video discussion with Cobi Moules as he talks about nature and identity.
Don Bacigalupi (left) and Chad Alligood in an artist’s studio, looking and documenting their finds.
Crystal Bridges’ President, Don Bacigalupi, and Associate Curator for Special Projects Chad Alligood have been traveling around the country for more than six months, visiting artist studios in every region of the United States in preparation for the upcoming exhibition, State of the Art. Don has recently begun blogging about their experiences, and providing profiles of some of the artists they have encountered on their travels for the Huffington Post, and we’d like to start sharing some of their adventures with you, as well.
This week we focus on one of the artists the pair met with in Seattle:
Portraiture is one of the oldest artistic genres, ranging from ancient carved likenesses on Egyptian sarcophagi to Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington to photograph Arnold Newman’s iconic atmospheric portraits of cultural figures, to Glamour Shots. But Seattle artist Susie Lee is adding a new dimension to our thinking about portraiture.
Lee has embarked upon a series of portraits based in time. With Still Lives, she has asked her subjects, many of them residents of a long-term care facility, to sit silently for her video camera for periods of up to 30 minutes at a time. The images she captures in this fashion represent neither the fleeting, frozen moment of still photography, nor a painting’s static image created through long observation—but rather, Lee’s images become an act of observation in and of themselves. These time-based portraits present Lee’s subjects in all their human physicality: small adjustments, breathing, yawns, scratches, and all. Some even fall asleep on camera. While they can cause a viewer to feel uncomfortable, even voyeuristic, when that awkwardness is past, the images also create a powerful awareness of shared humanity.
Because the portrait subjects are elders, the works also become an exploration of the dichotomy between being and not being. Over time, these works also explore the gradual transformation of the artwork itself: from its beginning as a record of a living individual, to a historical record of one who is gone, to its eventual evolution into an artistic object, whose subject becomes less about an individual and more about art for art’s sake.
“There’s sort of an intensity that’s there because half of the individuals who are in the portraits…have passed away,” Lee explained. “So … now there’s a transition, almost, between them being here and not being here; to them actually, then, almost being like a painting of somebody in the 1800s where you don’t know the individual but you know somebody like them.”
In his regular Huffington Post blog, Crystal Bridges President Don Bacigalupi provides a short video interview with Susie Lee. Click here to read the blog and view the video.