What is a landscape? What is it made of? What does it do? In the English language, landscape is a historic term that can be traced back to the sixteenth century, and in a simple framework has been defined as a picture of natural scenery or “land ‘captured’ in the eye and depicted in paint through the use of single point perspective that positions the artist and viewer looking out to the horizon.” Today, artists no longer perceive landscape as Kenneth Clark wrote in 1949 as “ unproblematic—a history of human spirit and its attempt to create harmony with its environment.” Instead, contemporary artists and thinkers are redefining and reframing what landscape can be, and meaningfully expanding how we understand our inextricable relationship to land. As Rebecca Solnit notes, artists have transformed landscape into “the principal battlefield of our time,” recognizing “landscape not as scenery, but as the spaces and systems we inhabit, a system our own lives depend on.” Within this context, landscape art can be understood not just as an aesthetic depiction of land as perceived through the human eye, but as a description of land tied to historic, political, economic, cultural, ecological, spiritual, social, gendered, and personal realities.
It is critical and generative to realize, as Simon Schama states, that “[e]ven the landscapes that we supposed to be most free of culture may turn out, on close inspection, to be its product.” Landscape is always subjective, a product of culture and the artist’s specific perspective. Yet, art historians have extensively focused their study and scholarship on landscapes as seen, defined, and pictured by European-American men, including the “fraternity” celebrated as the Hudson River School painters. In the field of American Art, landscape has thus come to be largely seen over time—in museums, in literature, and culture—through representations created by a White male canon.
Even the names used to identify certain places and geographical features of the United States employ masculine geological adjectives and coding. As Martin A. Berger has noted, in the unceded lands of Yosemite Valley, for instance, “frequently the most valued rocks were associated with male actors—sentinels, brothers, and captains—whose forms evoked stereotypical masculine adjectives like ‘massive,’ ‘solid,’ and ‘powerful.’” In contrast, nature has often been gendered as feminine; consider the term “Mother Earth.” Ecofeminists, emerging in the 1970s and 80s concurrent with the rise of the Women’s Movement, were some of the first to point to the ways in which the manipulation of land mirrored the subjugation of women. Catherine Nash and Gillian Rose have examined the ways that male geographers, and artists in turn, can “‘gaze’ at the landscape with its assumed feminine qualities in a manner that is reminiscent of and gives the same kind of pleasurable experience as that felt by the male spectator of the female nude.” To assume that the male-dominated canon of American landscape art represents an unproblematic “universal” is to ignore the masculine history of geography, land relations, and landscape art.
Despite very real restrictions and harmful stereotypes, women have always been making and exhibiting landscapes alongside their male counterparts. The full names of over fifty women associated with the Hudson River School have been identified to date, and that number will only continue to grow with increased scholarship. However, in a study of twenty iconic, public Hudson River School collections, only 15 out of a total of 1,175 paintings were by women, or 1.3%.15 It was only in 2021 that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds what is considered one of the world’s definitive American Art collections, purchased its first nineteenth-century Hudson River School landscape painted by a woman (Summer Woodlands by Julie Hart Beers). According to a major 2019 study, a data analysis of 18 major US art museums found their collections are 87% male and 85% White. At the time of writing, until now, with Susie Barstow’s debut in 2023 at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, there has never been a solo exhibition given to a 19th-century woman painting landscape in the United States.
Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2021, Linda Nochlin’s seminal essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?”, asks its readers to question and scrutinize the systems that discouraged women from pursuing careers in art, but also the systems that encouraged the neglect of women’s work in scholarship. Working in a field that has given more opportunities to men, women creating art have historically encountered impediments with regard to equal access to educational training, facilities, institutional support, and mentorship. Many women who did achieve visibility were privileged with familial or personal connections to successful male artists. And what about painting the landscape? In addition to structural barriers, women in the Hudson River School experienced different and unequal treatment. Painter Worthington Whittredge went so far as to claim that women were physically incapable of producing landscape painting because they “do not know how to stick an umbrella into the ground. Whittredge obviously did not know about the outings of Susie Barstow, who scaled the Catskills, Adirondacks, White Mountains, Alps, and Black Forest Mountains and is known to have hiked twenty-five miles a day.
Embracing that there are myriad ways to artistically interpret land, this project engages diverse, multigenerational perspectives and practices to launch an expanded narrative that strongly recenters women in the canon of American landscape art. We challenge the historic gap, in part by amplifying and bringing attention to specific, outstanding artists and thinkers who are women and whose work expands not only the confines of medium and material, but who have radically influenced, complicated, and transformed the way we see and understand land and landscape today. Women Reframe American Landscape includes the first solo show of Susie Barstow, a contemporary exhibition (featuring the work of the Guerrilla Girls, Anna Plesset, Tanya Marcuse, Teresita Fernández, Saya Woolfalk, Ebony G. Patterson, Wendy Red Star, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Kay WalkingStick, Cecilia Vicuña, Jean Shin, Mary Mattingly, and Marie Lorenz), and this book which includes original writing by the curators, artists, and Candice Hopkins and Jolene Rickard.
We are deeply indebted to and influenced by the work of artists, scholars, and activists who have traced and challenged the history of the gendered landscape. We come to this discourse with openness to possibility in a moment when the very terms in use—“landscape,” “American,” and “women artists”—feel inadequate, if not problematic, to fully represent the complexities of gender and our relationship with land and place. This project does not attempt to propose a single definition of “landscape” or “America,” nor to draw lines between a male or female perspective. Instead, this is one initiative among many at the Thomas Cole Site and the museum field to continually rethink landscape art in the United States as dynamic, multifaceted, and evolving, and as also created and interpreted by women. As asked by Nochlin, how can we “as a community together change the discourse and the production of our field…in this intersectional, evolving, varied, ongoing project?” While there has been a major shift in the art world to better balance opportunities across genders in the fifty years since Nochlin’s essay, there is still a long way to go, specifically in considering landscape art in the United States. Nochlin’s words feel as urgent and as galvanizing today: “Feminist art history is there to make trouble, to call into question, to ruffle feathers in the patriarchal dovecotes…We will need all our wit and courage to make sure that women’s voices are heard, their work seen and written about. That is our task for the future.” Women Reframe American Landscape takes up this call and consciously participates in this ongoing feminist work.
Shifting Art Histories
Of inspiration to us in this project, the Guerrilla Girls—the anonymous collective of feminist artists and activists—have been consistently fighting sexism and racism in the art world, politics, and pop culture since 1985. Calling themselves the “conscience of the art world,” members of the Guerrilla Girls wear gorilla masks, use pseudonyms of deceased female artists, and engage in “guerrilla tactics” and interventions, realized through street posters, billboard art, videos, books, and direct action and protest. In their popular 1989 poster, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? the Guerrilla Girls note that “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” In 2018, the Guerrilla Girls created a poster with an angry gorilla mask and text emblazoned across it: “IF YOU KEEP WOMEN OUT / THEY GET RESENTFUL.” Made over 30 years since the Guerrilla Girls coalesced, this poster serves as a proclamation and warning: feminists will stay angry and active until sexism is ousted from our cultural institutions. This poster serves as a siren to us to continue studying, exhibiting, and publishing work by women. On the occasion of Women Reframe American Landscape, the Guerrilla Girls will be making a new work in dialogue with the exhibition’s critical conversations around land and art.
Joining this work, the artist Anna Plesset reframes and directly challenges the male-dominated history of the Hudson River School. Drawing on a research-based practice that spans painting, print, and sculpture, Plesset illuminates women’s contributions to nineteenth-century American landscape painting and explores the processes that create, preserve, and share historical narratives. Plesset was galvanized by American Paradise, the seminal Hudson River School exhibition and publication organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1987, which included 84 works by 25 male artists and not a single work by a woman. In this iconic, canon-defining narrative of American art history, women artists are completely omitted and systematically erased. As an act of revision, Plesset inserts the work of women landscapists back into Hudson River School history by creating a new edition of the original American Paradise catalogue. The first of Plesset’s “new editions” will feature the book open to the interior cover page with an illustration of a painting by Susie Barstow as the frontispiece.
Plesset’s painting A View of the Catskill Mountain House / Copied from a picture by S. Cole copied from a picture by T. Cole / 1848, references the 1848 painting by Sarah Cole, a Hudson River School painter in the earliest years of the movement alongside her brother Thomas Cole. Plesset uses traditional painting techniques in a to-scale reproduction of Sarah Cole’s depiction of the Catskill Mountain House, which itself is a copy of Thomas Cole’s 1835 painting. Plesset’s version of the scene, however, is a work in progress and intentionally unfinished, alluding to history as an ongoing narrative. Alongside this is a small painted trompe-l’oeil painting of results from a Google search of Sarah Cole’s painting. Rendered in stunning accuracy, this smaller painting is, according to the artist, “the actual true copy.” Replicating other artists’ artworks was common among nineteenth-century painters, sculptors, and printmakers, who used the process as a learning tool or as an earnest reproduction to honor a fellow artist. However, art historians are guilty of heightened criticality of copies made by women. Sarah Cole, for example, is often called a “copyist after Thomas Cole” instead of “artist of the Hudson River School.” Plesset flips the table, and reclaims this act as valuable, stating, “By copying the works of these women and intentionally leaving my paintings in progress, I hope to make visible the act of historical recovery, and acknowledge it as never finished.” With both works, Plesset reminds us that history is a subjective construction and asks her viewer to envision more accurate histories of landscape art in the United States. What might fill an updated American Paradise publication if it paid heed to and showed interest in the work and perspectives of women?
Reimagining the single-point perspective and horizon line that has historically defined “landscape” in many Hudson River School canvases, Tanya Marcuse literally turns the view to the ground on which she stands, to the earth and all that it is made of. In her Woven series, Marcuse composes landscapes that are made of carefully arranged flora, fauna, and materials found and foraged along walks in and around her Hudson Valley home. Once a composition is assembled, the artist photographs multiple exposures that are stitched together, creating a portrait of the natural elements that is also a document of time. The work, like the flora and fauna featured within and like land itself, is not fixed but in a constant state of evolution, decay, and change. The artist uses the remains and ruins of the elements from the previous work to create her next work, mimicking the cycles of decay and regeneration of the natural world. As in an ever-changing ecosystem, birth and death are inextricably linked, constant, and simultaneous in Marcuse’s work.
Informed by the mythic Garden of Eden, botany, history, medieval tapestries, Hieronymus Bosch, Thomas Cole, and natural cycles, Marcuse’s Woven works are at once intimate and epic. They call for close inspection, and offer deeply detailed encounters with vast, tangled, interconnected elements of life that are carefully described on their own. Together, they become an extreme horizontal plane, like a garden bed or forest floor, exploding with the dynamic and biodiverse matter of land and life itself. These landscapes speak to the relationship between the part and the whole, the macro and the micro, echoing the fact that we do not live in a landscape, but within a living ecosystem that is made of interdependent and interconnected life forces, all of which play a vital role. This is further expressed in the way that, unlike horizon-based landscapes, there is a democracy of description in Marcuse’s works—everything is in equal focus. This too mimics the symbiotic relationships of living things within a biome; here, the birds and flowers are as important as the mountain. All elements within this work, as in land, are interwoven.
Reframing American Landscape
Who gets to define the American Landscape? What is “American Art”? What happens when we shift from “landscape” to “land”? These questions posed by artist Teresita Fernández in her essay “Artist as Arsonist: Burning Down The Myth of the American Landscape” reflect her ongoing work to rethink how we understand landscape in the United States. Drawing inspiration from the natural world, the artist poetically challenges conventional representations by acknowledging land not just as a physical geographic site, but also as a place where we live, a place that carries historic, cultural, social, and political stakes. She states:
“I am trying to radically redefine and reframe how we think about place and about landscape. It is less about this framed vista in front of your eyes, and more about understanding what happened there, who lived there. The less visible aspect of the landscape that is residing right underneath the surface of what we look at and what we think we see when we describe a place.”
Fernández densely layers charred charcoal to create Fire (United States of the Americas) 2, a map of the continental United States that as she states “reinserts the shape of Mexico, newly configured and reimagined as so immense that its redemptive, ghostlike presence starts to dissolve into the cosmos, looming large over the United States.” Leaving space between each state, this work brings attention to the messy borders of this country, drawn not by nature but through relations of power, conquest, and ownership. It is intentional that the artist made the map using charcoal, pieces of land itself, burned trees, and scorched earth forged through fire. For the artist and in ecological systems, fire represents destruction but also creation. Fire here poetically signals the ongoing violence of climate crisis, as well as the colonial legacy of displacement, genocide, and enslavement. Yet fire also illuminates a generative history of sophisticated, deliberate slash-and-burn agricultural practices used by Indigenous people across the Americas for thousands of years to foster sustainable land relationships.
With this work and Small American Fires 3, a series of twelve drawings made with colored ink and pencil, the artist brings to light how Indigenous land management practices across the hemisphere kept land sustainable and healthy in ways that were obliterated by colonization, even as the land was later romanticized as “beautiful landscapes” by nineteenth-century Hudson River School painters including Thomas Cole. While lamenting the destruction of landscape in the United States by commercial industrial exploitation and advocating for its protection, Cole longed for a “wilderness” that he incorrectly believed was untouched by human hands. He was naïve with regard to the ongoing generative interactions of Indigenous people with the land. Fernández challenges this, and states, “When there is only one narrative attached to what American Landscape is, there is simultaneously an erasure of another narrative.” Her work, in contrast to Cole’s, adamantly rejects this myth of “untouched, virgin wilderness,” still prevalent today, and makes visible the complex layers of land and human connection. The artist states:
“My work aims to be both poetic and political; beautiful, but also very fierce and confrontational in terms of prompting viewers to imagine a country that could have a different kind of future based on understanding its past.”
One portal to imagine and build generative relationships with land can be found in the multimedia works of Saya Woolfalk, whose practice spans painting, collage, sculpture, video, and performance. Drawing upon African American, European American, and Japanese influences, the artist activates new cosmologies and hybrid worlds informed by science fiction, feminist theory, mythology, and ecology. In 2021, during a residency at the Newark Museum, Woolfalk created Tumbling Into Landscape, a new installation and intervention within the American Art galleries at the museum. Like a time-traveler, Woolfalk brings together past and present in this work that features six nineteenth-century Hudson River School paintings assembled around a central life-size self-portrait of the artist. The silhouetted body of the artist in the center is made of remixed fragments of the historic paintings that surround it. The figure is adorned by swirling medicinal plants found in the museum’s herbaria collection. In the center of the body are words from abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, specifically a line from her famous 1851 speech: “Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.” In her self-portrait, Woolfalk includes “Give her a chance to set it” near her throat and heart, and “right side up again” upside down, above the belly.
In this reframed landscape, Woolfalk co-exists with, embodies, and becomes the land, spinning a multi-layered narrative that exposes the historic paintings as constructions, while recentering the extraordinary capacity of nature and the people who are a part of it. Seen in museums across the country, the Hudson River School landscapes are speculative fictional constructions that circulate as American creation myths that often leave out the people, like Sojourner Truth, and the history of rupture and violence that took place across the lands of what is now called the United States, a “democratic nation that was founded on liberty and slavery.” Woolfalk deconstructs and turns Hudson River School paintings inside out and upside down, disrupting how we read them and shaping them into her own physical form. In doing so, the artist challenges Thomas Cole’s “We are still in Eden” myth, activating a deeper story about landscape and American history.
Woolfalk is aware that each day, through storytelling, we are always making history as the world changes around us, and we keep transforming and evolving in response. Tumbling Into Landscape is meaningfully in conversation with Woolfalk’s created multi-verse centered around the Empathics, as well as her fictional future race of “Woods Women” who can travel across time and space, and her “No Placeans” who share genetic material with plants. In works like Birthing a New Sky, Woolfalk’s Goddess, adorned by healing plants including goldenrod, sassafras, meadowsweet, and wild strawberry, gives life to a new landscape and a world centered on connection, healing, and symbiotic relationships. In this landscape, things are turned upside down, opening a realm where sky becomes water and water, sky. The real space and the fantastical space come together as a space of possibility where “life expands, forcing its way out as new light, new land—a new sky.”
What does the land hold? Like Fernández Marcuse, and Woolfalk, Jamaican-born artist Ebony G. Patterson asks us to look below the surface, using the garden as a metaphor. Her ornate, multimedia works and textured tapestries are composed with glitter, jewelry, wallpaper, collaged images, and found objects. Their beguiling beauty draws the eye and mind into densely-layered landscapes. Patterson has explained, “In many ways, I think of the work as the flower and the audience as the bees. The bee is first attracted to the flower because of its color, but it’s not until you start peeling back the layers that you understand what’s happening with the nectar.” In Patterson’s when the land is in plumage…, a peacock sculpted of jewels is looking back at its own tail, unfurled into a burst of color and ornament onto the wall behind it. Upon closer inspection, the bird is molting and behind this shedding of plumage, something darker begins to emerge—fragmented human body parts. In a manner that suggests death or defeat, human hands dangle downwards within the bedazzled tail, while other hands appear, palms up, underfoot. Patterson stated that when she made this work, she was “thinking about the idea that somehow the land holds secrets. That the land also holds the truth.” Patterson’s peacock, “witnessing its own molting, its own collapsing, its own growing, its own oozing,” reads like an allegory for the violent histories of human loss, control, death, and injustice that have occurred on American soil. Simultaneously it suggests the possibility of reparation and transformation.
Patterson, like many of the artists in this project, is interested in the history of erasure as well as current climate and social injustices, including rampant wild fires, racial violence, and working class struggles. Patterson’s work, titled …the wailing… ushers us home…and there is a bellying on the land… weaves together another intricate garden. Within paper cut-outs of flora, a swarm of three-dimensional butterflies, and a glittered snake, an extravagantly-dressed female figure stands tall. Patterson, who often adorns human figures in her work with beautiful clothing and jewelry, has noted: “I’m interested in the way we use dress, and its relationship to pageantry and beauty, particularly with working-class people—how that becomes an act of gardening, but gardening that’s happening on the body.” Patterson connects beauty with class, land, and labor, noticing that “a number of working class spaces often have names that reference land, and that references the beauty and possibility of land, but somehow socially and socioeconomically, these spaces are the least attended to.” Indeed, in this work, the female figure stands without a head, signifying harm inflicted upon her. In the words of the artist, the layering of violence with beauty prompts us to ask: “What happens when these bodies that live in neglected gardens decide to use these tools of beauty, these tools of embellishment on their own bodies?” For Patterson, layered ornamentation on her figures become a statement of presence, resilience, and protest for the working class that mirrors the labor required to care for a garden. Patterson’s presentation of land as a garden serves as, in the artist’s words, “a metaphor for death, burial, renewal, but also a space for love and care. The garden is a site of possibility, a chance to shift.”
In addition to projecting myths, some traditional landscape depictions have also perpetuated stereotypes. Multimedia artist Wendy Red Star, a member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe, uses humor, surrealism, primary source imagery, and a research-based practice to confront stereotypes of Indigenous peoples prevalent in historic settler- colonial landscapes. In her watershed work Four Seasons, Red Star breaks down inaccurate and harmful ideas about American landscape and depictions of the Indigenous peoples who inhabit it. Four Seasons is a series of photographs that feature Red Star herself within a constructed, artificial landscape diorama that progresses through spring, summer, fall, and winter. The settings are made from Astroturf, inflatable and cardboard animals, plastic flowers, wrinkled fabric backdrops printed with landscape imagery à la National Geographic, and other kitsch props. The artist sits wearing authentic Crow regalia, an elk tooth dress, and maintains composure and seriousness. By poking “fun at the boundaries between conceived authenticity and stereotypical portrayals of Native American subjects,” Four Seasons prompts questioning and criticality of stereotypes of Indigenous people and their connection to the land. What is more, “the scenes lampoon Westernized notions of the ‘noble savage’ coexisting in harmony with nature, once again wryly thrusting the colonial gaze back on itself.” Red Star states: “The conqueror has set up an image of what Native people are…We’ve lost our individuality as different nations. We were stereotyped into one thing.” By letting dominant styles of landscape art and depictions go unquestioned and uncriticized, we reinforce certain false narratives, ones that leave out, stereotype, and mischaracterize Indigenous peoples. Red Star’s work celebrates Crow culture and sends “the message that her community’s landscape is best documented by someone from the inside.”
An enrolled Salish member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, Jaune Quick-to- See Smith has been a practicing artist for over sixty years. Working across painting, printmaking, and mixed media, she creates narrative landscapes that pay homage to Indigenous history, culture, and activism while confronting settler-colonial violence committed against Native communities and the environment. Included in this project are maps made by Smith that bring a critical framework to question and overturn their power as “objective” descriptions of land. In Unhinged (Map), Smith rotates the map of the United States on its head, surrounding the landmass in energetic swirls of line and color, with Canada at the bottom and Mexico at the top. This reoriented perspective takes away the objectivity, universality, and accuracy associated with the American map form that we are accustomed to seeing. Through the simple rotation, which also calls attention to Christopher Columbus’s navigational errors in sailing to India that resulted in his landing in the Caribbean, Smith notes that the map becomes a “thing of Indian power.” These works remind us that maps have been used as tools to assert power and to justify stolen land and territorial expansion on Turtle Island, the Indigenous name for the land now called the United States.
In a group of smaller map works made of colored beads, the artist includes terms and symbols emblazoned across the United States map (figs. 12–15), including “SHE / HER / HERS,” “AMERIKA,” “STOLEN,” and “$.” Through these terms, Smith sparks conversation and connection amongst land, maps, ecofeminism, womanhood, racism, Indigenous land, the commodification of land, and the prioritization of money over ecosystem health. In Smoke Signals Map, Smith also pastes appropriated text and images atop a colorfully painted, rotated map of the United States. The center text, “Climate Change is Giving Smoke Signals,” is accompanied by a quote from feminist poet Alice Walker and images of ancient fertility symbols. Thus, Smith reclaims the idea of Mother Earth and connects the destruction of land with violence against women. The use of beads and terms such as “Smoke Signals” reinserts Indigenous history and culture into the land that the maps describe.
Land, Climate, and Connection Now
“Nature and landscape…are not just where we picnic but also where we live and die. It is where our food, water, fuel, and minerals come from, where our nuclear waste and shit and garbage go to, it is the territory of dreams, somebody’s homeland and somebody’s gold mine.”
Artists in this project have critically reimagined how we consider the history of landscape art, asked us to look below the surface, and challenged territorial borders. Additionally, they engage land in a moment when climate and social justice are critically and inextricably linked. In a career spanning over sixty years, Kay WalkingStick, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, has worked across abstraction and representation, painting American landscapes with reverence and knowledge of the physical, spiritual, political, and cultural dimensions of land. The artist celebrates Earth in her recent paintings, which feature epic landscapes like those made in the nineteenth century by artists now associated with the Hudson River School. WalkingStick has noted, “our beautiful planet deserves to be described beautifully.” But in contrast to and deeply expanding on some nineteenth-century interpretations, WalkingStick overlays onto her painted landscapes patterns created by the Indigenous people who have inhabited the land or who live there now.
The artist spends time drawing and photographing each place represented in her work before returning to her studio to paint and to conduct research on the Indigenous people connected to each location. Selecting designs from their baskets, beadwork, and pottery, WalkingStick stencils and paints each chosen pattern onto the painted land. Wampanoag Coast, Variation II, for instance, is a landscape that pictures the Northeastern coast with an overlay of a pattern designed by the Wampanoag tribe who live there. Winter Passage, painted across two joined wooden panels, features a view of the Sierra Nevadas near Mono Lake, Mono County, California with a basket design created by the Mono Lake Paiute people, who live there and who are well known for their basketry.
Drawing upon craft and expressive verve, WalkingStick’s landscapes embody an experience of land that is literally and conceptually layered; it is at once geological, cultural, spiritual, personal, and peopled. Through the bands of patterning that float on top and hover between the viewer and the land, the artist effectively disrupts and shifts how one has been trained to see landscape. Here one cannot see the land without also seeing the culture and people who live within it. The artist expands, “The fact is that we’re living on Indian land. There are Indian people everywhere in this country, all over the country…This beautiful land is Indian land.” With this work, WalkingStick activates space for joy and reverence. In combining specific Native American designs with specific places, the artist reclaims and asserts the sovereignty of Native land, offers a band of protection, and makes visible the presence of the people who belong to the particular place. This is not a land to conquer or exploit, but a place of beauty to honor, protect, and sustain; as the artist notes, “I want people to remember what we have.”
Artist, poet, and activist, Cecilia Vicuña created her “documentary poem” Kon Kon on the beaches of Concón, which Vicuña describes as “one of the most sacred places in Chile, at the foot of the Aconcagua mountain, a place where people have been doing art for ten thousand years.” Concón’s nature preserves were chosen as the site of the Aconcagua oil refinery, built in the 1970s. Constructed atop an ancient burial ground, the refinery altered the landscape and ravaged the ecosystem of this culturally and spiritually important place. Kon Kon, the film, which the artist notes was made in collaboration with the ocean, addresses the artist’s deep connection to this place as well as the ecological and cultural losses and disappearances that are tied to overfishing, pollution, corporate development, economic greed, and political corruption.
In the 54-minute film, Vicuña traverses the beaches, dunes, hills, and rocks of Concón, drawing, singing, and placing found objects and debris into the sand and attaching images of landscapes lost to the oil refinery to a quipu (the ancient Inca process of record-keeping using knotted string). The artist explains this process in an interview:
“I was still a teenager, and I was on the beach in Chile. And suddenly, I felt the wind was alive, and it was sort of caressing me, moving around my body like a snake. I turned around, and I could see I was being sensed as much as I was sensing the world around me. And so, in awe, it was like I melted. And I bent down and I picked up one of these precios, a piece of debris right there on the beach. I touched it, I brought it up, and I planted it in the sand. And that was the beginning of my precarious art. So what is it for me? It is the acknowledgment of the precariousness of life, the precariousness of the beauty of being. It is an act of acknowledgment of that fact that we will die. That we are dying as we live. For someone like me, the words nature and environment separate us from who we truly are. We are nature. We are the environment. Especially us as a group, as a human group. We are not individuals. We are simultaneously an individual, different from everyone else, and at the same time, we are one.”
Working with reverence and in communion with the sea, the wind, and earth in Kon Kon, Vicuña weaves together deeply spiritual interconnections between land and life. Through her work, words, and enactment of rituals, she brings to life an offering of energy and healing. The artist’s practice illustrates how land is a living force, alive and holding memory and culture, as well as the source of all life and death. Kon Kon serves as an ode to Concón amidst its destruction and a reminder that if we are one with each other and one with the land, the destruction of nature is violence committed against all of us.
New York City and Hudson Valley-based artist Jean Shin collects discarded objects and materials to create sculptures and artworks that encourage thoughtful reflection on consumption and human impact within ecosystems. Shin’s materials are often ubiquitous parts of our consumerist, capitalist culture and our personal, everyday lives within them—cast-off electronics, cell phones, clothing, plastic bottles, lottery tickets, umbrellas, and more. Shin’s work addresses landscape in an expanded field of the Anthropocene that acknowledges the impact of global economies and industry in a moment of climate crisis across the land.
Freshwater, Shin’s 2022 installation at Philadelphia Contemporary, is a looped water system that runs through glass orbs, the homes of live mussels born at a nearby mussel conservatory. Pumped in from and returned to the Delaware river, the water that flows through this system is filtered by the ecologically-valuable but endangered mussels, magnified for view by the orbs when the water is clear. The pool below is made up of pearl buttons, made from shellfish and leftover from overproduction during a nineteenth-century fashion craze. Shin sees this excess as an ecological “tragedy”—mussels were “extracted from all over the world and made into incredible, beautiful buttons that were never used…I feel like this extinction was for absolutely no reason, just that we thought we wanted them.” It is undeniable that our landscapes today are rife with tragedies just like the one Shin highlights in Freshwater. Many scientists refer to our Anthropocene era as the “Sixth Extinction,” since species and organisms are dying at a rate thousands of times greater than considered normal. Shin’s work asks its viewer to see human action as deeply connected to the health of our land, landscapes, and ecosystems. Through unchecked consumerism and industrial production, our way of life becomes “incredibly inequitable for the planet and for others who don’t get to choose how they live.”
Shin’s practice reminds us that a greener, healthier landscape requires intentional labor. On the occasion of this exhibition, the artist is creating Displaced, a “time capsule” on the grounds at the Thomas Cole Site. The capsule will consist of a previously-used art shipping crate, filled with displaced earth as well as waste and scraps from the artist’s past projects. This installation makes visible the way our earth and soil have become forever polluted by microplastics and human waste. For the artist, this work “brings a self-critical lens to the struggle to maintain a zero-waste art practice.” Furthermore, it encourages critical self-reflection on the environmental impact of the art and museum world, largely characterized by traveling exhibitions that require cross-country shipping and robust wooden art crates, which are often destroyed and disposed of afterwards. This new project, and Shin’s body of work as a whole, uses excessive and defunct materials from our consumerist society to create systems and connections that bring acute attention to the labor required, on a personal and systemic level, to achieve sustainability and ecologically-healthy landscapes.
Mary Mattingly is an interdisciplinary artist who engages land and landscape, not through pictorial or symbolic representation, but through the creation of community spaces and environments that imagine and encourage new futures based in reciprocity. Recognizing that we live in a complex living ecological system, the artist works like an activist, responding to the current and future climate crisis. She cultivates a practice that rises to the urgency of this moment, noting, “Art for me is about new possibilities, it’s about life and survival. Art is urgent, and its thoughtful. I believe I have a duty to imagine food as a public service, to reinforce water as a human right, and work with people to cocreate common spaces.” Mattingly’s work often takes the form of an offering, one that may provide sustenance or one that provides space for community engagement and environmental education. In Swale, the artist created a floating edible landscape to provide free food to the people of the South Bronx, one of the biggest food deserts in the United States. Planting a garden on a barge, and using recycled water from the vessel’s hull to water the garden, Swale helps us envision a society where land and its gifts are not commodified under capitalism, but food, shelter, and water are accessed and shared freely in community. The artist reflects: “There is sadly something that is utopian about this. And it’s utopian because we are in a time where it feels like it’s such a stretch to consider food a right, or a service, or public.”
Additionally, Mattingly has created several community spaces across the country that she calls Ecotopian Libraries. With the goal of sparking meaningful and lasting social changes, these libraries bring together writing, ideas, and installations on the topics of forestry, botany, ecology, art, literature, and the sciences that allow community members of all backgrounds to share knowledge and together brainstorm generative ways forward through climate change. For Women Reframe American Landscape, the artist is creating an Ecotopian Library that draws upon the land at the Thomas Cole Site, as well as artists Thomas Cole and Emily Cole, who also directly engaged with nature, environmental preservation, and local flora and fauna. Mattingly has stated, “I think we are in this really unique time right now where it’s like kind of before the storm. We are probably doomed as humans if we do not start thinking in a post-humanist way. If we don’t start taking everything into account, our surroundings or environment, we are doomed to fail as a human race because we won’t be able to live on this earth.” Mattingly’s work asks us, if we are indeed to envision a future where land is valued for its ability to sustain us and our communities, instead of exploited for its capitalistic value, what actions must follow?
On the history of landscape, Rebecca Solnit writes: “…much of the landscape tradition comes out of the classical pastoral mode which celebrates purity of the rural in contrast to the corruption of the urban…and does so in a mood of deep nostalgia and longing. For the ideal world of the pastoral is always in the past and has its parallels in Eden, the lost Golden Age, the landscape yet undiscovered.” In contrast to the imaginary pristine and idealized landscapes often found in historic paintings, artist Marie Lorenz creates interactive work that engages and embraces the urban, industrial landscape in and around her New York studio. Through projects like Tide and Current Taxi, Lorenz does not attempt to picture the landscape, but rather reclaims it—with all its wonder and destruction, life and toxicity—as an everyday space for observation, work, play, and movement. Beginning in 2005, the artist began welcoming people onto her rowboat and out into the waterways of New York. Passengers can choose a departure point and destination, and Lorenz uses a chart of the tides and currents to plan the voyage. This participatory, socially-engaged practice is dependent on reading the natural cycles of the land and water, and brings people directly into unconventional parts of the New York City landscape. The voyage allows them to see the landscape of the city from a new orientation, and places them in close contact with plants, birds, industrial urban formations, and islands. Travelling along the creeks, bays, rivers, canals, and harbors, Tide and Current Taxi brings people not into the aesthetic space of landscape, but rather the places where the intersections and collaborations between nature and urban development are evident and remarkable.
In her sculpted works too, Lorenz combines and conflates natural elements with synthetic debris found on and within the land. These hybrid works of discarded and forgotten objects and the opportunity to experience land afforded through Lorenz’s practice reflect the real elements of our landscapes today—places full of plastics and toxins, as well as minerals, life, and dirt. This is not the wild, untouched, Arcadian state, but a real, viable, messy and active space in which we live, where the synthetic and natural coexist in the urban industrial landscape. For Lorenz, despite the transformation of time and pollution, the land continues to be a space of possibility. Most recently, the artist has been experimenting with sound and theater, including works that bring full operatic performances into the waterways, and her sounds boats, like Wave Chime, which she launched on Catskill Creek, Thomas Cole’s favorite spot to walk and paint. In these experiential works, passengers are transported physically into the space of land and wonder, engaging our senses through sounds, sight, touch, and smell, centering and grounding the human body into the landscape. In Wave Chime Lorenz references the mythology of the Underworld and River Styx, suggesting our own mortality and connection with a land that is dynamic, marred, and ever-evolving.
Land is the material of our home and the sustainer of life, and landscape art reflects our myriad, diverse understandings of this at-once complex, elemental, beautiful, and formidable place. Multifaceted and different perspectives on land, the ecosystems we inhabit, and our connection to place strengthen us as a human community as we aim to forge healthier, more reciprocal relationships within and across natural environments, especially in a moment of climate change and catastrophe. This brings to mind the work of author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, who acknowledges that while many are aware of the negative impacts of humans on the environment, what about the possibility of positive interactions? In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes: “Wild meadow sweetgrass grows long and fragrant when it is looked after by humans. Weeding and care for the habitat and neighboring plants strengthens its growth…The problem is not humans, but the relationship between humans and the environment. While some people have mined, consumed, drained natural resources, others have interacted with the land in sustainable, and generative ways.” Through this project, we aim to recenter the important critical and generative perspectives of women artists who reframe land, in all of its complexity and possibility. As the featured artists have made clear, landscape cannot be understood through a single perspective, lens, or medium. Landscape can only be understood in relation to land, in our current moment, and as something that is not “other” or outside of us, but something we are interdependent upon and a part of. We are all made of the same elements as stars, connected always to the earth, sky, and water. Just as land is always shifting, evolving, changing, so too is the writing of our histories and the urgency of our moment. Our critical, cultural, political, and ecological work is dynamic, interconnected, and ongoing. In this study of landscape that collides with feminist efforts, we echo the motto of the Guerrilla Girls: “Do one thing. If it works, do another. If it doesn’t, do another anyway. Keep chipping away!”