at the Renaissance Society, through December 21
Frederic Robert Bouche:
at Gallery 312, through December 17
By Fred Camper
Cristina Iglesias's installation Untitled [Bamboo Forest], one of seven works by the artist now at the Renaissance Society, occupies a small, white-walled room: large panels of cast aluminum, each a relief of a bamboo forest, cover three of the corners, forming great long sheets whose gentle bends soften the room's right angles. In another room, similarly large aluminum "walls" represent eucalyptus leaves.
Presenting familiar content in a new format is a staple of 20th-century art, but the size of Iglesias's walls--taller than human height and much wider than they are tall--creates an awesome environment. And she's assembled her foliage with such care--casting real plants using the lost-wax method--that these pieces are rich with detail: bamboo stalks of varying thicknesses project at various levels of depth, the recessed areas between them filled with the imprints of foliage. Tiny variations in the eucalyptus leaves--including veins and minuscule bug holes--are rendered with amazing precision. It's as if one were being invited into a dense wilderness, almost becoming lost in depth effects until the reality of Iglesias's material intrudes: the metal, impenetrably hard, denies entry.
It is this paradox, created by a fusion of opposites--organic lyricism and man-made materials, invitation and rebuff--that's the crux of Iglesias's art. A Basque who lives near Madrid, she's acquired an international reputation at 41; the present exhibit is an intelligently edited version of a show organized by and first presented at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In a talk on the day of the opening, Iglesias commented on her use of nature for inspiration. Attracted to wildernesses she's never seen--"There is no real nature left in Spain," she said, and "I was never in a bamboo forest"--she recognizes their fundamental incompatibility with culture. Her gentle, decorative aluminum slabs--suggestive of a curtain, tapestry, or Japanese screen--are also cold and forbidding, at once seductive and vaguely unpleasant. Iglesias acknowledges a fundamental contradiction within our culture: that symbolic systems such as language and visual illusion that represent reality ultimately distance us not only from nature but from the entire sensual world. By representing nature in the least likely of substances--using metal rather than plaster or carved wood, for example--Iglesias movingly articulates this contradiction. The depth effects of her cast aluminum re-create the aura of a forest--an aura that suddenly vanishes when we once again attend to her materials.
Iglesias often heightens this contradiction through her placement of the sculptures in space: her metal reliefs "soften" the corners but are also "harder" than the gallery's walls. She's suspended Untitled [Hanging Tilted Ceiling]--a series of rectangular blocks cast of resin and colored with stone powder--in rows from the gallery ceiling. The sight of them is at first a little intimidating--I thought of Richard Serra's massive metal panels, one of which actually fell on and killed a workman during its installation a few years ago. There's no real reason to worry here, but Iglesias's veiled, subtextual threat again illuminates her paradoxical fusion of nature and culture. These slabs--less detailed than aluminum casts, they still suggest lichen and mushroom gills--evoke the magical world of a forest floor, but suspended above our heads, a placement as paradoxical as the embodiment of eucalyptus leaves in aluminum or mushrooms in stone. Cast in unlikely materials and displaced from the natural environment, these blocks seem to be our best chance of knowing nature. Yet we can no longer even walk on the natural world: instead it's present to us as a looming dream, a bizarrely ominous memory.
Frederic Robert Bouche apparently wishes to narrow the fissure between human experience and the natural world that Iglesias's sculptures so eloquently evoke. Though Bouche is a French native (presently living in Ithaca, New York), there's something about his installation at Gallery 312 that recalls Emerson's paradigmatic "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" For Horizontal Illusion Bouche traveled to the northernmost region of Alaska, the North Slope, where he laid 260 sheets of paper in a field, tracked mud on them, and documented his outdoor work in photographs. Bouche's installation includes about a third of those sheets, which face a grid of photographs of the site, showing the sheets of paper held down by rocks in a large flat field.
Instead of Iglesias's alienation effects, Bouche offers a direct relationship between a visual representation and the physical world: the sheets visible in the photograph are also present in the gallery; any mud on them is real mud from the site, as the symbolic system of photography meets the actual stuff of Alaska. This installation refers not so much to the inadequacy of symbols as to the way the physical world dwarfs them. Mounting his sheets of paper on a large wooden frame, Bouche has angled it toward the opposite gallery wall, determining the angles from the differences in latitude and longitude between Chicago and his Alaskan site. The tilted frame also leads the eye downward toward the wall and the grid of photographs that picture the original site.
Bouche's installation doesn't have the formal elegance of Iglesias's constructions. But her pieces have a much smaller frame of reference, engaging the viewer in a kind of spatial game in which the work seems to expand or contract only by a few feet here and there. Bouche's installation, on the other hand, relies less on the gallery space than on the "space" of the earth itself.
When he went to Alaska looking for "subject matter that would be as powerful as a tree"--previously he'd done a life-size drawing of a tree on "about 6,000 sheets of paper" assembled on the floor--Bouche found himself mystified by the "incredible power" of this site. After a few days, he says, he saw that the flat field with distant hills and mountains allowed him to see the curvature of the earth. He found this realization "absolutely chilling" in its revelation of the earth's circularity and monumental size. (This is perhaps why another part of his installation--17 photographs taken from the center of the paper grid to create a panoramic view of the site--are mounted in a single gently curving line.)
Born and raised in rural Normandy, Bouche initially couldn't wait to get away. But after art school in Paris and a move to New York--where exposure to a variety of art, from the paintings of Milton Resnick to conceptualism, minimalism, and earth art, helped him find his own artistic beginnings--he began to long for the countryside of his youth. "As a child," he recalls, "the greatest thing for me was to bike around and then lie down in the grass, in a field"; the tactility of Horizontal Illusion perhaps has its roots in those memories.
But two other small elements of the piece are no less important than the muddy paper. A map of North America marked with the coordinates of the Alaskan site and Chicago is actually a composite aerial photo showing mountains and rivers--a not unimportant point considering Bouche's rejection of symbolic systems in favor of physical realities. And a vertically mounted group of photos, most of them landscape panoramas composed of several shots, show sites north and south of Bouche's original location. The most northerly of them reveals an ice-clogged Arctic Ocean, while the most southerly of them shows trees. Bouche situates the North Slope site within the larger geography of the world, above the tree line and below the Arctic Ocean, and does so in photographs rather than language. Though perhaps less refined aesthetically than Iglesias's work, Bouche's installation led me to think about my own "original" ways of relating to nature: by thinking about the distances between places or lying in a grassy field, looking at the sky. i
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Bamboo Forest" by Christina Iglesias; "Horizontal Illusion" by Frederic Robert Bouche.