Next To Nothing, Close To Nowhere
An ancient Chinese myth recounts the origin of the eight basic generative figures for Chinese calligraphy:
When Fù Xī governed everything under the sky, he looked upward and admired the splendid designs in the heavens, and looking down he observed the structure of the earth. He noted the elegance of the shapes of birds and animals and the balanced variety of their territories. He studied his own body and the distant realities and afterwards invented the eight trigrams in order to be able to reveal the transformations of nature and understand the essence of things.1
1 Introduction: How It Is
Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it.2
This monograph is about the work of Kathleen Jacobs. It is about her processes, her labors, and her encounters with the natural environment. It is about the methods—almost sculptural techniques—that an artist uses to create marks on canvases that result in “works,” which are somewhere between two and three dimensions. This monograph is also about a specific, intimate relationship—a collaboration—with nature, which is both a language unto itself and Jacobs’s partner in art making.
To consider artistic process alone invariably raises red flags about context and content. Discussions about technique and method can be both superficial and tedious. Jacobs’s works are not mind-numbing, anodyne works that are popular in a manic art market. Rather, Jacobs’s sculptures and paintings underscore an intimacy—a unity—between the artist and artwork. Her works, particularly her mark making, elicit a liberated purity that is next to nothing. They conjure neither a place nor proximity. They depict a place close to nowhere. The works use “the language of less…. Language is a linchpin of the delusion that art is ripe for translation. Less is the position that art escapes definition, that its energy forces a change.”3
Categories are comforting. In modern and contemporary art, categories provide reassuring labels that often provide a sense of certainty. “A critic or art historian who is writing on an artist can choose among a variety of established methods…. There are artists, however, whose works are so completely their own that the established methodologies and approaches are inadequate to the task of the critic or art historian. In the postwar period, the roster of these few, highly autonomous artists would include the American artists James Lee Byars and Eva Hesse, and the German artists Joseph Beuys and Wolfgang Laib.”4 Kathleen Jacobs’s name can be added to this list.
Jacobs’s work has been alternately linked at times with abstract expressionism and American minimalism. This is wrong. An initial encounter with Jacobs’s works invites familiar comparisons, but a closer look reveals her authenticity. Her work cannot be comfortably associated with Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still; nor can it be likened to the reductive paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, and Frank Stella. Similarly, Jacobs’s sculptures cannot be compared to the work of Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and John McCracken. To borrow from Korean painter Park Seo-bo’s self-assessment, Jacobs’s work is more related to:
the oriental tradition and its spiritual concept of space. I am more interested in space from the point of view of nature…. In other words, I want to reduce the idea and emotion in my work, to express my interest in space from the point of view of nature. Then I want to reduce that—to create pure emptiness.5
Jacobs belongs to no specific movement or school. She has neither taught nor influenced any students. She has essentially made her work in semi-isolation near a small town of some seven thousand people in western Massachusetts, coincidentally in the greater vicinity of the early to mid-nineteenth-century Hudson River School of painting. There, in her Berkshire County sylvan, Jacobs has limited dialogue with artists, curators, or gallerists. Like Byars, Hesse, Beuys, and Laib, she is original and the “absolute source” for her own work.6 Also like Laib, Jacobs makes work characterized by “a deep relationship with nature and a commitment to the purity and simplicity [she] finds in Eastern philosophies.”7
Jacobs’s work has an important affinity based on concepts, materials, and methods (or labor) to Dansaekhwa, contemporary Korean monochrome painting, which has received heightened attention in the past few years.8 To align Jacobs’s work—most specifically, her paintings—with Dansaekhwa underscores an anthropological notion of cultural synchronization. Cultural things, cultural concepts can develop without direct, contemporaneous contact or exchange. So without specific knowledge of or contact with the Dansaekhwa community and their artistic activities and legacies, Jacobs’s work embodies a complementary set of values and practices.
It is also important to discuss Jacobs’s works in the context of historical tradition of the natural landscape and more contemporaneous artistic interests and pursuits addressing nature and the environment. Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Joseph Beuys pioneered environmental (even social) sculpture that raised and built awareness about nature. Within Beuys’s vision, nature was a central theme of energy, “a natural energy, stated in the cosmic/alchemic sense. ‘We plant trees and the trees plant us’.”9 Jacobs is among a small but growing group of artists who extend our consciousness about nature, while offering quiet poetics and intellectual clarity.
The combination of methods and context allows for a richer understanding of Jacobs’s work.
2 An Artist’s Life: Movements, Materials, and Methods
We generally remember little about our childhood. There is some good; there is some bad. We embrace memories that often define us. Jacobs (b. Aspen, 1958) distinctly recalls an iconic photograph by Herbert Bayer, the Austrian-born artist polymath, who was effectively the architect of Aspen. A pioneering faculty member of the Bauhaus, Bayer dramatically influenced the development of typography, design, and environmental installation. Unlike Robert Morris, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson, environmental artists who would follow Bayer, Bayer made early earthworks that invited human “participation from within as much as aesthetic contemplation from outside of the work.”10 His photographic manipulation In Search of Times Past (1959) hung in Jacobs’s father’s office at the Aspen Institute. The image is of a stand of aspens with images of human eyes superimposed. This eerie, surrealistic work stared at Jacobs. It entered her consciousness and, ultimately, her art.
After high school graduation, Jacobs attended Pine Manor College, in Boston. At the encouragement of her father, she relocated to Milan in 1980 to study graphic design at Scuola Politecnica di Design (SPD), where she completed her diploma, and to work. Jacobs learned Italian by full immersion, breaking her linguistic isolation as the only American attending the school.
SPD, established in 1954, was one of two postgraduate schools in Europe (the other being Schule für Gestaltung Basel) that emerged from the Bauhaus. Both schools were inheritors of the notion that creativity and manufacturing had drifted apart and warranted rejuvenation. The school maintained a rigorous approach to problem analysis and solving that shaped Jacobs’s artistic approach and work ethic. Problems deserved numerous experiments before being resolved; testing and variation were critical. Jacobs’s four years at SPD had a major influence on her approach to analyzing aesthetic issues, acquiring technique, and, more broadly, refining her specific interests. She also met and married a Chinese national, which led to another relocation and an extended residence in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Jacobs’s four years in China provided another strikingly different and sometimes difficult context of quasi-isolation. She lived in Beijing and Hong Kong with her husband and his extended family in a private compound where no English was spoken. She learned Chinese like she had mastered Italian. She lived the language fully. The spoken language was enhanced by Jacobs’s early interest in calligraphy, which became an additional technique for her to use, training her hand. Jacobs describes calligraphy as a revelation: the practice of making ideograms was a portal into the language, which was an entry into the private domain of her Chinese family and the more public culture outside.
In China, Jacobs engaged in the daily practice of mark making, which she learned from her father-in-law Huang Yongyu, the celebrated Chinese artist. Calligraphy became a primary means of artistic exercise and expression, like a martial art. She tested and retested a variety of materials and methods. Her experiments with material and process were somewhat casual, exploratory. Through calligraphy, Jacobs learned that “practice” was a path to mastery, but mastery was essentially unattainable. Each piece of paper and each stroke of the brush or pen contributed to the learning process. They were experiments. They were an outlet to resolving aesthetic problems. Jacobs learned it does not matter what you do, but it matters that you finish. She also learned that the details were not as important as the finished product. She practiced.
Jacobs began making more traditional ink-based landscape drawings and paintings focusing on the tree in 1988. When she returned to the United States the next year, the least expensive and most accessible materials were the humble ones available on the Colorado ranch where she lived: wood, baling wire, and beeswax.
She “moved on,” as she said, to experiment with making bark rubbings on paper, bedsheets, and, ultimately, linen canvas.11 Between 1989 and 1999, Jacobs wrapped eighteen aspen trees in a grove near Conundrum Creek, in Colorado’s White River National Forest. The artist’s intention was to memorialize a stand of trees subject to “sudden aspen decline,” a grim arboreal phenomenon. The swaddled trees were intended to be an epitaph.
Her process involved wrapping and tightly stapling painted linen or cotton duck canvases of varying dimensions on trees. The canvases were generally thinly painted, typically white, after they were attached to trunks and branches. The canvases were wrapped vertically as a rule; Jacobs then roughly rubbed an oil stick on the canvas’s surface, much like a gravestone rubbing, capturing the natural textures and contours of a tree’s bark. When the paintings were ultimately removed from the trees, the canvases were intended to be hung or tacked like calligraphic scrolls. (Later, around 2008, Jacobs decided to present the rubbings in a traditional painting format.)
During her full transition back to the United States, Jacobs further developed her techniques at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado. There she studied encaustic painting, ceramics, welding, and Japanese woodcut. Incrementally, each new skill led to experiments in material and form. Between 1999 and 2000, Jacobs relocated to Massachusetts, where she now resides, close to deciduous forests and open meadows. The trees by her home, as well as those at her work Clearing, 2012–14 (described in chapter 5), comprise her current, outdoor studio.
Moving to rural Massachusetts also enabled Jacobs to develop additional, important skills that require repeated practice, most notably becoming an aerobatic pilot. She has cited the importance of flying most days, “observing the sky and the weather.” As a pilot, Jacobs can fly with the earth above and the sky below. This avocation is not dissimilar to an observation Yun Hyong-keun quipped: “Free time allows me to think about many things. In a way, it is like taking a stroll inside my mind…. One might call it a life without any clear distinction between work and play.”12 To encounter Jacobs’s paintings is much like a view from a plane, aerial perspectives of near nothingness that appear close to nowhere.
Materials and Methods
Bark is the outermost layer of stems and roots of woody plants, the shape of which is transformed by all the environmental elements. It is a tree’s skin, its protective barrier. Its texture is determined by genetics and natural exposure. Yet, there is a certain, specific uniformity within arboreal species, which makes bark readily identifiable.
Different species, different micro-environments result in subtle, but varied, marks on the canvas. Black walnut has a rough, deeply grooved bark; the bark of the northern white pine is characterized by longer and shallower fissures. Oak bark is often dusted with algae and has deep, wide grooves; aspens have diamond-shaped lenticels that fuse into channels as a tree ages. Beeches have smooth skins that often become lumpy with mosses at they age; willow barks are often crisscrossed with deep ridges. The variation is enormous; even the language to describe bark variations is broad.
Much like Chung Chang-Sup, who molded hanji (traditional Korean paper, made of mulberry bark) into “unpainted paintings,” or Ha Chong-Hyun, who pushed thick paint through plain, woven hemp, Jacobs evolved the making of rubbings into a ritualistic process. The Tao Te Ching advises, “Act with no action; use the technique of no technique.” Jacobs shares an orientation or approach with Chung Chang-Sup and other members of a post-war Korean artist community known as Dansaekhwa.13 Ha Chong-Hyun said, “When I push the colors through the hemp canvas. One material flows through another. As the edge of the material is gently pressed, I hope that the material itself delivers the story I wish to tell just by being itself. I want to be an artist of few words.”14
Applying oil stick and pastels to the canvas while it is attached to the tree is a daily, weekly, sometimes monthly activity, rather than a single act. Jacobs frequently visits the grove and its trees, rubbing—if not massaging—the canvas with oil stick, building several layers, resulting in a raised surface. The paintings naturally weather and age. Jacobs “trusts that whatever is underneath will come up to the surface.” The process, her process, is almost Taoist. Activated by an alchemy of rubbings, the elements of nature, and the passage of time, the artist, the tree, and its bark make the resultant painting. Her marks, like those of Park Seo-bo, “impart no demonstration of skill, a central aspect of technique, nor do they communicate anything other than the artist’s presence and, perhaps, [her] investment of labor.”15
3 The Urgency of Method
The term Dansaekhwa (also transliterated as Tansaekhwa) was only coined and applied in 2012 by the curator Yoon Jin Sup. Dansaekhwa “did not unfold as a conscious movement with a defined set of goals underpinned by an aesthetic position. It was a result of an organic process.”16 “Dansaekhwa was a movement that was largely invented to fulfill various agendas, most of which had very little to do with abstraction—or even painting—for that matter…. What all these very different artists had in common was a commitment to thinking more intensively about the constituent elements of mark, line, frame, surface and space around which they understood the meaning of painting.”17 Moreover, “a sense of tactility is ‘the outstanding feature’ of Dansaekhwa.”18
Conceptually, Dansaekhwa figures significantly in this monograph because “most integral to the conceptual paradigm underpinning the practice of the Dansaekhwa members was the championing of the physical nature of the artwork.”19 Instead of a “schematic whereby the artwork passively transmits the artist’s intention to the equally passive viewer, the artwork is activated only upon the viewer’s sustained engagement with the terms of its material and physical presence.”20 Jacobs’s work has real empathy with Dansaekhwa. To stand before it—to view it—reveals a simultaneous modesty and benign strength.
To be able to associate Jacobs with the Dansaekhwa community and its artistic output is a gift of the Internet and the result of a small number of prescient galleries in Korea and the United States. Before 2014, Dansaekhwa was largely unknown in North America. There were (and are) few scholars of modern and contemporary Korean art conversant with this community. Even the work of Lee Ufan, perhaps the best-known member of Dansaekhwa, is only familiar to a small number of connoisseurs. In fact, Lee Ufan is often mistakenly identified as Japanese, since he resides in Kamakura, Japan.
Korean monochrome painters—like most contemporary artists—were fully aware of emerging artistic trends of the 1950s and ’60s: abstract expressionism, art informel, color-field painting, minimalism, and arte povera.21, 22 In fact, postwar Korea has been a conduit for receiving and disseminating ideas from North America and Europe to and throughout Asia, with Seoul emerging as the hub of exchange. But, attaining “fluency” in the Western languages of abstraction does not mean replicating them.23
Each of the Dansaekhwa artists developed and perfected a unique approach to or process for art making. Dansaekhwa works were referred to as “‘methods’… rather than ‘paintings’ or even ‘artworks.’”24 Critics referred to Dansaekhwa as
“methods of drawing,” “methods of spreading,” “methods of bleeding,” “methods of spilling,” and “methods of pushing” as well as “methods of painting.”25
What all these diverse methods really had in common, despite disparities in approach and technique, was “an awareness of the three-dimensionality of the artwork and a relentless insistence on highlighting and engaging with the physical qualities of the materials that were used.”26
Joan Kee, a University of Michigan art historian who has championed Dansaekhwa, has used the phrase “the urgency of method” to describe the various approaches of Dansaekhwa artists. In summarizing the work of Park Seo-bo, for example, Kee wrote, “His marks… impart no demonstration of skill, a central aspect of technique, nor do they communicate anything other than the artist’s physical presence and, perhaps, his investment of labor.”27 Even the selection and use of materials by Dansaekhwa artists reflected “necessity rather than studied deliberation.”28
Traditional Korean art is based on the contemplation of the natural world, a concept that aligns well with Jacobs’s work within the physical landscape. “Korean artists emphasize the virtues of the materials they manipulate, achieving beauty and a profound spirituality through simplicity, repetition, and gesture.”29
Art history as usually discussed is conceived as a history of styles…. [Art] exists in preestablished formulas like national style, group style, international style, individual style, and the like. But in a contemporary art [field] that is subdivided and localized in the extreme, it has the effect of conflating each artist’s individual artistic worlds to past group styles. In this situation… it is of utmost necessity that we focus on the newness of how each artist individually attempts to produce work. The question is not what is depicted or made, as it has been for art of the past, but how to depict.30
Whether researching Dansaekhwa or the individual artists generally associated with the community, like Lee Ufan, Park Seo-bo, and Ha Chong-Hyun, the redefinition of art as art, deemphasizing “identity” art labels, such as African American and Chinese art, has been accelerated by the Internet. Quite simply, art is art wherever it is made. Despite its affinities, Jacobs’s work defies specific categorization—whether it is method, technique, geography, or any other criteria. It shares a genuine “urgency of method.”
4 “Nature is a language, can’t you read?”31
To walk with nature as a poet is the necessary condition of a perfect artist.32
Jacobs has two studios: one inside, one outside. Her traditional studio is a place for drawing, planning, and preparing materials for location. Little physical work is made in the studio. It is a place for thought and readiness.
Jacobs works in the environment—her second studio—where all the natural elements are freely used in combination with her methods of working with her hands, her tools, and her chosen materials: linen, gesso, paint, and oil stick. Jacobs has described this mix of methods and materials as collaboration with the “cosmic hand.” That her work originates and matures in the natural world is a continuation and extension of the tradition of landscape-based art, both traditional and contemporary.
The Natural Landscape
The natural landscape has figured throughout art history; it is a universal genre central to both Western and non-Western art. That nature is both subject and object of Jacobs’s work is obvious. It is unique in that Jacobs actively collaborates with nature, primarily trees, and weather.
The history of art begins with depictions of the natural world: the Paleolithic cave paintings of Pettakere (Indonesia) and Chauvet (France) provide archaeological evidence. The tradition of landscape painting emerged through centuries of evolving styles, perhaps beginning with frescoes and wall paintings conspicuous in Dynastic Egypt, Aegean civilizations, classical antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and into modern Europe. From India to Mexico and points in between, landscape was not a narrow vernacular. Early Minoan frescoes were pure landscapes with no human figures. Chinese ink painting provided only a glimpse of human life. In early Western medieval art, interest in the landscape almost disappeared, but by the fifteenth century, landscape was resurrected as a background to human activity, frequently expressed in spiritual themes. They reflected pastoral aspirations and aesthetic values drawn from mythology, poetry, and religion.
By the seventeeth century, the landscape was perfected, displaying an idealized harmony where nature was balanced and serene, evoking classical simplicity. When the French Academy classified the genres of art in the seventeenth century, it placed landscape fourth in order of importance out of five genres. Landscape began to dominate “the picture” in the work of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Yet these treatments of landscape were highly stylized or artificial: they tried to evoke Arcadian visions, the landscape of ancient Greece and Rome, and their work became known as classical landscape.33
The recognition by the French Academy of landscape as both historic and important led the way for one of the first genres of American art. Naturalistic landscape painting proliferated in the nineteenth century, partly driven by the notion that nature is a direct manifestation of God, and partly by the increasing distance of many people from nature by growing industrialization and urbanization. Henry David Thoreau championed this Transcendentalist and early environmentalist view, saying, “To him who contemplates a trait of natural beauty no harm nor disappointment can come.”34
In the United States, Hudson River School artists believed that painting American landscapes in epic proportions might instill a sense of the sublime. Artistic depictions of the land were a personalized form of historical painting. Yet, these paintings embodied a kind of secular faith, glorifying an emerging country and extolling its natural beauty. Walt Whitman believed that “‘everything has a soul… . trees have souls. That clouds have souls. Nature thoughts from Whitman, then, are not pictures of trees and creeks and clouds only. They are pictures of souls.’”35 Painters like Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church used the vast and open expanse of land to convey emotional and romantic notions of the new frontier. This was pragmatic work, reflecting direct encounters with nature.36 The irony was and is that Thomas Cole’s method of working, like that of most Hudson River School painters, was a studio practice, “a traditional and synthetic one…. he rarely if ever painted directly from nature,”37 unlike Jacobs, who interacts with nature directly and frequently.
Coincidentally, as interest in landscape painting began to wane in the United States, municipal parks flourished, largely influenced by Frederick Law Olmsted. Nature was augmented, if not replaced, by reconceptions and manmade recreations of the environment. Parks were nature relocated, nature improved, nature perfected. That Olmsted “viewed himself as an artist is unmistakable. Although he is considered the father of American landscape architecture … he rejected the term… in favor of the ‘sylvan art.’”38 Trees, plants, and people interacting in Olmsted’s parks were his “landscapes.” Olmsted and his contemporary and business partner, Calvert Vaux, had both awareness of and even friendships with the Hudson River School painters, who
made the landscape of America—verdant, untrammeled, awe-inspiring—the central subject of their paintings. Figures of people, when they appear at all, are dwarfed by the scenery, an assertion of egalitarianism: We are mere specks, and our best selves are found in an outward-looking apprehension of nature’s grandeur.39
The “academic” and institutional popularity of the landscape genre gradually faded from artistic and curatorial preferences with the emergence of expressionism, cubism, and surrealism in the twentieth century. Prior to his own rejection of painting as “retinal art,” Marcel Duchamp himself, the father of the readymade and conceptualism, painted lush landscapes, derivative of his youthful interest in impressionism.40, 41 “Literal” depictions of landscape were increasingly considered to be banal, if not pedestrian, the stuff of amateurs. Abstraction, expressionism, and their art-genre offspring dominated postwar art for several decades. Books like Joseph Beuys und die anthropologische Landschaft underscore the dedication of idiosyncratic, genuinely catalytic artists like Beuys, whose work—in all forms—was shaped by the concepts and realities of society in nature and landscape.42 By the late 1960s, the landscape (that is, nature) itself had become a sculptural medium with the emergence of earthworks produced by artists, including Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Walter De Maria, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Michael Heizer.43, 44
I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heartwood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet.45
The tree moved from background to foreground—from the tangled forest of landscape art—with the emergence of conceptual art practices, particularly in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In framing the context for Jacobs’s work, there are two important, relevant precedents: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Trees (Project for the Fondation Beyeler and Beower Park, Riehen, Switzerland), 1997–98, and Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks), 1982–87. Like Jacobs, both Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Beuys frequently collaborated with nature, often using trees.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the renowned environmental artist collaboration, began working with trees in 1966. (In total, Christo and Jeanne-Claude proposed nearly ten wrapped tree projects.) Christo created his first Wrapped Tree in 1966 as part of a one-person exhibition at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Nursery trees are often seen with both their roots and crowns wrapped; it is also common to see trees temporarily wrapped as protection against weather extremes and during transport. Christo took such a tree and placed it horizontally on a pedestal inside the museum. The tree’s roots were wrapped in fabric; its branches were wrapped in plastic. By restaging the tree, the artist changed the sapling’s natural habitat to a novel one creating a paradox: nature was turned inside out.46
Later in 1966, Christo and Jeanne-Claude proposed a wrapped tree project for Forest Park, the home of Missouri’s Saint Louis Art Museum, which was denied permission. In 1969, the artists again requested permission for Wrapped Trees (Project for 330 Trees, Avenue des Champs-Élysées), Paris. Permission was again denied. Finally, in November 1998, Wrapped Trees (Project for the Fondation Beyeler and Beower Park, Riehen, Switzerland) was completed on location in the park around the Fondation Beyeler and in the adjacent meadow as well as along the creek of Berower Park, northeast of Basel, at the German border. In total, 178 trees were wrapped with 592,015 square feet (55,000 square meters) of woven polyester, a fabric that has been used in Japan during winter to protect trees from frost and heavy snow, and 14.3 miles (23 kilometers) of rope.47, 48
Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Eichen was essentially an urban reforestation project that was initiated at Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany, in 1982. The “aesthetic and philosophical impetus” of the tree-planting drive was “supposed to regenerate ‘the life of humankind within the body of society and to prepare for a positive future in that context.’”49, 50 Critically, Beuys’s project has been characterized to function “not just literally, in practical environmental terms, but symbolically, as ‘inspirational images,’” not dissimilar to ninteenth-century landscape painting.51 This project became a five-year effort during which he and others planted 7,000 trees of various species throughout Kassel. Each tree was planted with an accompanying basalt stele as a marker. The work embodies “Beuys’s utopian and poetic metaphysics of a social sculpture designed to effect a revolution in human consciousness.”52 Equally important, Beuys stated emphatically that “the nature of his sculpture was never fixed and finished, but that chemical processes continued in them, decay, desiccation, colour changes.”53
Wrapped Trees and 7000 Eichen are both analogous to Jacobs’s Clearing, 2012–14, an in situ project in Hillsdale, New York (described in chapter 5). In Hillsdale, Jacobs wrapped more than sixty walnut tree trunks and limbs with linen. The linen canvases were then gessoed, marked, and rubbed with oil stick. In addition to providing temporary armatures for paintings, the wrapped trees transformed and activated an abandoned orchard into a collaborative art laboratory, a “social sculpture,” and a public performance.
That nature and trees even figure in contemporary art is almost anomalous.54 In concept, artists working with nature and environmental subject matter operate in a postlandscape genre, a term coined to identify artists who examine relationships between nature and culture and issues such as land use, urbanization, technology, and globalization. In many respects, they are the inheritors of the philosophies and practices of land art.55 Yet, many of these artists, Jacobs included, recall Immanuel Kant’s ideas about nature, beauty, and the sublime.56 In addition to these works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Beuys, Jacobs’s work triggers comparison with three other contemporary artists, whose orientations are sympathetic to hers. They all make works using trees collaboratively, albeit in different media.
Zoe Leonard (b. Liberty, New York, 1961) is a photographer and installation artist who has chosen to document the transition of culture and society into the digital age. Her early aerial photographs of urban landscapes are meditations that relate well to the timelessness and placelessness of Jacobs’s paintings. Leonard’s photographs of trees in urban landscapes underscore the restless and relentless competition in contemporary topographies, the battle between nature and man. “She punctuates narratives of representation, as found in cityscapes, landscapes, and museums in order to question them.”57 Fence + Tree, Out My Back Window (1998) shows a tree engulfing a section of fence and urban detritus, growing—even flourishing—“in spite of their enclosures—bursting out of them or absorbing them…. they’re also images of endurance. And symbiosis.”58 A related sculpture from 1997 made of a tree sawn apart and then reattached with supports and metal screws specifically subverted “the idealisation of ‘wild’ nature, traditional in nineteenth-century American photography and painting, replacing it with the uneasy cohabitation of culture with nature.”59
In contrast to Zoe Leonard, Diana Thater (b. San Francisco, California, 1962) uses digital technology to create time-based (video) installations about and related to nature and landscape, under water, on land, and above the earth’s surface in deep space. She specifically credits the Hudson River School painters as a major influence on her work, as well as the filmmaker John Ford and author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.60 Thater’s installations address the question of “the relationship of modern technological vision to realms of nature and beauty…. questioning the very ‘naturalness’ of nature.” But Thater’s conclusion seems to be that “one cannot ever know nature.61 Rather, we attempt to know ourselves in relationship to it.”62 Moss Green Room (2001), a single monitor installation, was filmed from a car driving through the Redwood National and State Parks in northern California. The recorded video is nearly a pure, visual abstraction of trees in their natural habitat, looking at times more like a squeegee painting by Gerhard Richter than a video inspired by the Hudson River School.
In yet another approach, Ugo Rondinone (b. 1964, Brunnen, Switzerland) challenges the boundaries and relationships between time and displacement, fiction and reality, and artificial and natural environments. Rondinone’s work draws from his family’s Italian origins in the Sassi di Matera, an ancient city of cave dwellings that was home to the poorest families in an exceptionally impoverished land.
“Landscapes are at the root of my work,” Rondinone says. “The whole of romantic imagery is in these landscapes. They portray a nostalgic view of time past.”63 Rondinone is specifically referring to the German Romanticists, such as the nineteenth-century painter Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich was notable for depicting allegorical scenes with dazzling sunsets and dramatic vistas that were simultaneously generic, yet beautiful. “German Romanticism,” Rondinone continues, ”was the first movement to incorporate feelings and dreams and all the irrationality within the working process.”64 The intent of this artistic vernacular was to elevate the mind from the crowded confines of the increasingly urbanized world that emerged during the Industrial Revolution, when parks were designed to look like wilderness.
Rondinone began a personal exercise of drawing tree landscapes in 1989, many of which look like tributes to Friedrich, if not appropriations. Rondinone initiated his cast tree installations in 1996. In one project, he fabricated two seventeen-foot-tall casts of two-thousand-year-old olive trees. For Rondinone, the sculptures are both signifiers of time and memorials to his past. “A cast of a 2000 year old olive tree is a memoriam of condensed time. Through a cast olive tree one can experience the lapse of real time, frozen in its given form. It’s an experience of a different calibrated temporality. Time becomes a lived abstraction, where the shape of the ancient olive tree is formed by an accumulation of times, and the force of air, water, wind, and fire.”65
There is a kindredness among these four artists grounded—no, rooted—in the natural environment and the passage of time. In contrast to the stark, shadowless black-and-white photographs of Zoe Leonard, and in distinction from the technological innovations of Diana Thater’s time-based media, and apart from Rondinone’s nostalgic cast sculptures, Jacobs’s work is discreet, even subtle. You cannot ignore it or forget it. Her work alerts us to natural realities that we frequently take for granted. Jacobs’s methods are the basis for a specific grammar for a language we can all read: nature. Her paintings read like life.
5 Clearing (2012–14)
Jacobs has spent a considerable amount of time experimenting and developing her processes in private, in both her traditional studio and outside. In the autumn of 2012, Jacobs was invited by Architecture for Art, a Hillsdale, New York, non-profit gallery, to undertake a project in nature. Titled Clearing, Jacobs effectively “rescued” a walnut orchard, transforming it into arboreal installation. She and her crew mowed the jungle of undergrowth from beneath the trees, clearing it out, creating paths and open areas, liberating the trees, and transforming it into a grove: a space. Jacobs installed some sixty-eight canvases on the trunks or branches of the walnut trees, many of which became small paintings.
Clearing was initially intended to be a project of a few months. It was neither intended nor expected to stand for two and a half years. As a project, it morphed into a Christo and Jeanne-Claude–like or Beuysian social sculpture, not a planned community park à la the High Line in New York. Jacobs’s wrappings were pure intervention, almost like swaddling on the trees’ branches and trunks. The orchard was transformed, but it was “devoid of mythic, surreal, or ceremonial references, which have imbued Noguchi’s designs,” for example.66 Rather, Clearing was a site designed to provide a positive human experience, much like the earthworks of Herbert Bayer.
6 Recent Paintings
As an aerobatic pilot, Jacobs’s view of the world is transformed by skimming the heavens, and looping and tumbling her single-engine aircraft above the earth’s surface. Her maneuvers seem to defy gravity and traditional compass directions: east, south, west, and north. But to land safely after experiencing what could be dizzying and disorienting perspectives, Jacobs must always reorient and realign herself and her aircraft with the horizon.
The artist’s five-letter titles refer to five aeronautical coordinates, or intersections, as they are called. These alphanumeric intersections are virtual navigational fixes above the earth, which help pilots navigate. They are unseen, aerial points. In a sense, they are places in three-dimensional conceptual maps.
Jacobs’s paintings have a similar gravity- and direction-defying character. Seeing them can almost induce a slight disorientation or imbalance, as the viewer tries to establish a fixed horizon. Like Agnes Martin’s paintings, Jacobs’s works have multiple horizon lines. All of them are plausible. But unlike Martin’s precise straight edges, Jacobs’s marks are often like corduroy wale lines accompanied by crumbly waves and whitewater foam.
As such, Jacobs’s paintings can be read as landscapes, seascapes, and skyscapes, rooted in both Western and Eastern artistic traditions and techniques. Ambiguity is intentional, eliciting a sublime purity that is next to nothing and depicting a place that is close to nowhere, a portal to the heavens. The work silences us, like Martin’s, and, to borrow a phrase, “the nearly imperceptible opens out onto infinity if we can quiet down enough to perceive it.”67