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Art Review: Land art at Blackfish Gallery

In this two-part exhibition, curator Merridawn Duckler seeks to tackle the complicated legacy of the historical Land Art movement and consider how artists engage with land in the Pacific Northwest in the 21st century.

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Maggie McCloskey, Bootstraps, 2022. Blackberry bushes and mannequin arms. Courtesy of Blackfish Gallery.

As a journalist, I carry five questions with me everywhere I go: who, what, when, where, and why. As an art writer, my temptation is to leave those questions at the door. With art, I am much more interested in quieting my mind to let the art speak for itself. However, when walking through Merridawn Duckler’s “land art show” at Blackfish Gallery—which includes an off-site, outdoor exhibition, “Sighted Land,” in East Columbia—I found myself in a bind. 

The show’s statement describes the in-gallery portion as “literally earth-shattering art, installation, and performance on the genre of Land Art, historic art movement of the 1960’s/70’s seen through a 21st century lens.” It also explained that the exhibition ushered both art collective members and invited artists to “join the Native American visual arts community in presenting works that challenge, reflect, and enlarge the (artists’) role in land use, land challenges, imagination, and environment in the Pacific Northwest.” 

Perhaps most associated with the 1970s, the historical Land Art movement has been criticized more recently for reinforcing settler colonist attitudes and doing damage to the earth, rather than making strides to protect it. While the exhibition’s premise is solid and intriguing, the installation and collection of works exhibited came off as discordant and imprecise. To be sure, the inclusion of several Indigenous artists and perspectives made an important contribution to reshaping the broader Land Art genre; however, many contributions from Blackfish Gallery collective artists, in particular, seemed indifferent to the ambitious curatorial vision altogether. In effect, standing before each individual work in the exhibition, I found myself having to ask each time “Is this piece contributing to or taking away from the objective of the show?”

With certain pieces in the gallery, Myra Clark Elder’s Elder (2018) for example, I felt particularly torn. On one hand, Elder’s careful dream-like brushstrokes and warmly saturated palette took me immediately home to the shady spot beneath the oak in my front yard where the cat sometimes curls up on a humid summer afternoon. On the other hand, what links this piece to the exhibition is merely that it takes the landscape as its subject. It is a lovely painting; but it doesn’t per se “challenge, reflect, or enlarge the artist’s role in land use, land challenges, imagination, and environment in the Pacific Northwest” by any means.

Myra Clark Elder, Elder, 2018. 18 x 20 inches. Courtesy of Blackfish Gallery.

Land Art, Land Use, and Land Challenges

Certain works on view certainly interacted with the Land Art genre using a 21st century lens. Carol Benson’s Bonescape (2022), for example—the foreground of which is a pile of mangled bones, the jagged hills beyond seeming to both loom over and crush them—evokes a pointed sense of dread. From Benson’s perspective, the “landscapes” from which Land artists source, arrange, and carve into might be better understood as a graveyard. In this way, Benson’s work fits with Duckler’s vision even though it is a painting on view in a gallery rather than a sculpture installed outdoors. 

Kelsey Birsa, Osmosis, 2019. Oil on panel. 72 x 36 inches. Courtesy of Blackfish Gallery.

Kelsey Birsa’s massive, six-by-twelve foot piece, Osmosis (2019), depicts bare feet wading through a shallow river bed. In a corollary contribution, Stacked (2022) offsite in “Sighted Lands,” Birsa arranged a pile of river rocks on a small table. Stacked reads an invitation to build a cairn. Though the in-gallery oil painting itself is clearly excellently crafted, its associated installation piece directly conflicts with the reconsideration of the environmental harm of Land Art given that cairns damage ecosystems, disrupt river flows, and so on. If anything, Birsa’s total contribution to the exhibition detracts from Duckler’s vision.

In her curator’s statement, Duckler specified that “discussions about the land [and] decisions about shared land come from many voices: policy makers, activists, scientists, nature-lovers. I wanted to hear from the artists.” She also told me in an email interview that she “wanted to make space for artists and audiences to listen and learn from Native-American aesthetic visions, histories, and cultural values”—something Duckler made a notable effort to do, throughout the length of the exhibition. 

Though the exhibition primarily features white artists, several Indigenous artists and organizations were invited to participate by hosting an artisan craft market, sitting on a panel, and making art on site, in real time. 

One of the members of the Blackfish Gallery collective featured in the gallery portion of the show, Don Bailey—who was raised on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in California is a Hupa tribal member—also contributed several paintings that critically reimagined the Land Art genre, pivoting it away from both earthworks and sited-works entirely and, like Benson, engaging the movement on canvas. 

Don Bailey, Ledger 137, 2022-22. Oil. 36 x 78 inches. Courtesy of Blackfish Gallery.

Storage (2020), in particular, recontextualizes familiar images of Indigenous Americans on horseback, depicting them in rich but fading earthen pigments against the backdrop of a warehouse, with tape across a door reading “Seizure of Property.” Duckler’s decision to include this criticism of the United States’ unjust and genocidal seizure of land and livelihood, then, clarifies what she means by “21st century lens.” For her, reviving the Land Art movement isn’t just a further critique of the institutional gallery space—it’s also a nod to land justice and Indigenous rights issues.

Along these lines, Bailey’s work interacts with Taylor Eggan’s installation piece, a ground (2022), across the room: a pile of origami flowers spilling out of an upturned wheelbarrow, each reading selections from the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855, such as “The above-named confederated bands of Indians cede to the United States all their right, title, and claim to all and every part of the country included in the following boundaries…” 

Though the inclusion of art referencing land justice and Indiginous rights is significant, and several works on view both in-gallery and off-site did important work toward reimagining the 20th century movement using a 21st century lens, in the back of my mind, I could not help but push against several works. 

“Not everyone’s choices fit into the genre in ways that accorded with my vision,” Duckler told me. Especially for the artists in “Sighted Land,” she noted that, as a curator, she herself had to cede control, just as much as the artists did. 

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“Their work wasn’t behind glass in a protected environment but open to elements over which they had little sovereignty. That’s an important lesson of the genre and one I had to learn too,” she continued. “Even landscape paintings, which don’t exactly vibe with [the historical Land Art movement], raise questions of what artists have chosen to see, present and isolate. A curator has to have a vision, otherwise the show is a mess.”

Reviving the Land Art genre with the benefit of a more critical 21st century perspective, even comfortably within an art institution, is worthwhile—especially as land justice and Indigenous rights issues rise to the top of social justice movements around the world. However, sometimes to understand where we’re going, it’s important to first understand where we’ve come from. 

A Brief History of Land Art

In the middle of the 20th century, a lot of anxiety had built up in the art world around what art and whom art was for. As the facade of the modern world began to crumble, and more and more artists pressed against the art world’s expectations for conventional art, several artists, critics, and theorists set out to make sense of the seemingly directionless thrust of postmodernism. One movement to emerge from this post-modern angst was Land Art.

A fundamental critique of the “institutional apparatus of the museum as the space constituted to endow [art] with cultural legitimacy,” as writes the authors of art since 1900 (Thames & Hudson, 2004), Land Art dislodged art from gallery and museum spaces, in order radically expand the sculptural field. 

Tate defines Land Art or earth art as “made directly in the landscape, sculpting the land itself into earthworks or making structures in the landscape using natural materials such as rocks or twigs.” Whereas Chris Taylor, director of the Land Arts of the American West program at Texas Tech University, more broadly defines Land Art as “anything people do in the landscape.”

Essentially, Land Art can use any material to create (or uncreate) anything, anywhere. In the end, it seems, much of the point of Land Art became to emphasize the impermanence of all things, something sterilized and timeless “fine art” monuments seem constantly to reject. 

Robert Smithson, a key artist within and theorist of Land Art movement, called his serene “anti-monuments” “ruins in reverse”—structures that were neither landscape nor architecture but something in between. In his 1968 essay, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” Smithson wrote “the strata of the Earth is a jumbled museum.” 

In its infancy, Land Art’s interaction with the harsh conditions of the natural world were radical. The decentering of the conventional art institution also powerfully ushered “‘the entire landscape of the world’ into the domain of art,” writes Emily Eliza Scott in her 2018 review of Sam Wainwright Douglas’ Through the Repellent Fence (2017), an ambitious installation that both drew from and rejected the legacy of the Land Art movement. Institutional critique was as much of the movement’s raison d’être as having the art outside. 

“I think if somebody does something kind of marvelous and it’s in the land, call it Land art,” curator and critic Lucy Lippard wrote in her book, Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (2014). However, “art is supposed to raise questions and jolt you and move into those gaps between art and life that people weren’t thinking about much and pry them open and make you see what’s going on in a place.”

In her reflection on Douglas’ work, Scott also noted that, from today’s vantage point, the earthworks of the 1960s-70s might even be read as an “undiluted expression of settler colonialism.” Raven Chacon (Navajo), a member of the interdisciplinary collective Postcommodity, even suggested that Land artists’ propensity to be destructive to the earth furthers the Western impulse to “colonize different places they felt were theirs.”

On “Sighted Land”

With this in mind, Maggie McCloskey’s installation piece on view in “Sighted Land,” Bootstraps (2022)—which uses uprooted blackberry vines from a nearby bush—feels particularly contentious. On one hand, the black mannequin arms reaching out of these piles compel me to reflect on the Indigenous communities that were erased by history, at the same time that their land was stolen out from under them. On the other hand, I wonder how much thought was put into destroying that wildlife to accomplish this work.

Taylor Eggan, a ground, 2022. 5 x 5 x 4.5 feet. Particle board, wheelbarrow, burn-etched wood round, paper, acrylic, and latex paints. Courtesy of Blackfish Gallery.

In my experience, the tension between Duckler’s effort to reimagine the place and purpose of Land Art in the Pacific Northwest and several of her artists’ apparent ignorance toward that effort permeated most of the art in this exhibition. There were, of course, several exceptions. I enjoyed the carefully thoughtful work of artists like Kareem Blair, whose piles of produce boxes reading “Land Owner”—instead of “Land Rover,” in the car brand’s familiar logo. Taylor Eggan’s land treaty origami flowers, which he also arranged in a bouquet off-site, were another highlight. Installation pieces like these that both critiqued and stretched a movement that beforehand felt inflexible and clearly aligned with Duckler’s aim for the exhibition. However, in the end, I found myself frustrated with artists who either put their art outside to see what happened or contributed art that referenced “land” but sidestepped Duckler’s broader vision. 

Ultimately, the invisible curatorial thread behind it all made “land art show” and “Sighted Land” worth it, to me. With both, Duckler has started an important conversation in the Oregon art community about the land we so often forget is not ours.

*** Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Maggie McCloskey’s work Bootstraps as Alice Walker’s Manifest Destiny.

Justin Duyao is a writer, editor and creative director with experience in journalism, art criticism, copywriting and creative editing. He holds an MA in Critical Studies from the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) at Willamette University, as well as degrees in English Literature, French and Theology from Harding University. He is the recipient of a Make | Learn | Build grant from Oregon's Regional Arts and Culture Council, as well as a Writing Fellowship from the Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies at PNCA. His art writing has been published by Oregon ArtsWatch and Variable West, and he has non-fiction essays published in Dismantle Magazine, Weathered and the Clackamas Literary Review, among others. He lives in Oceanside, California.

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