NATURE IS A LANGUAGE, CAN'T YOU READ?"...
To walk with nature as a poet is the necessary condition of a perfect artist.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.
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.”
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.’” 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. 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,” 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.’” 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.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. “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. 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.
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.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.
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.
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.’” 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. 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.” 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.”
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. 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. 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.” 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.” 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.”
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. 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. Rather, we attempt to know ourselves in relationship to it.” 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.