Picturing Places of Rupture and Change: An Essay by Kelsey Halliday Johnson

Grizzly Grizzly’s April exhibit, Foraged, features the photography of Anna Collette and the small sculpture of Jessica Lund-Higgins. In a show that rethinks traditional divides between artist and landscape, Kelsey Halliday Johnson (artist, writer, and art historian) explores the concept of nature as a human construct. Through a distinctly scientific framework, Johnson brings the subject of landscape into focus as a bellwether for the state of our environment and an artistic format that should be explored with urgency in an attempt to more clearly understand our material present and to address the changing planet through artistic practice.

Nearly a decade ago, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London (the organization who names and enforces the boundaries of geologic epochs) read a 2008 proposal that suggested we have entered a new era of the earth’s history, when human activity is the primary tectonic force shaping the planet, entitled the Anthropocene. Officially, that organization still maintains we are in the Holocene Epoch as we have been for the past 11,700 years. “Holocene” takes its name from ancient Greek for “entirely new” and this period has been merely a splinter in the greater trunk of geologic time. It has been a time of relatively minimal geologic continental activity, but massive change driven by rising temperatures and the astronomical population change of Homo sapiens. Northern landmasses rose over 175 meters as landmasses shifted from the changing weight of vanishing glaciers, and sea levels rose 35-40 meters while this ice melted. Population models and projections put the global human population at the start of this epoch at between one and ten million people; the global population by some estimates is now just shy of 7.5 billion.

While many of the leading global stratigraphers now have working groups and studies evaluating the implications of the Anthropocene, this research finds itself in a moment in broader popular culture that is fraught in debate over fact, reason, the scientific method, and where we should find truth that guides the future of our species/world. While the word has been more regularly in the media, the term is hardly new; the Anthropocene was first proposed in use by ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s and gained prominence since 2000 when Nobel Prize-winning ozone research pioneer Paul Crutzen began urging scientists to adopt it when the two co-wrote a paper. In these past two years the Anthropocene has seen an intense uptick in its vernacular usage as its meaning has become better understood by groups of the general public. The fundamental implications and premises are finally trickling down into our world view, our politics, our policy conversations, literature, art, and (hopefully) daily thinking.

Some scholars posit that the beginning of Western philosophy involved the intellectual discovery or conceptual invention of nature. In ancient Greece, our two contemporary understandings of “nature” (as a set of properties and causes, or the conditions and laws of the natural world), were intertwined and messy. In this history of Western knowledge, nature is bound by universal principles, but also characterized as mechanical and passive. Early Chinese philosophy contains more sophisticated complications within “nature,” defined as a self-generative set of forces that are intertwined, changing, and interacting (leaving fertile grounds for belief systems like Daoism that would create a kind of Grand Unified Theory for these disparate elements). However, both systems and our historical thinking categorically divide and distinguish humans from the natural world. (Consider concepts like “wilderness” and “wildness” birthed by such frameworks). The Anthropocene importantly implicates that our familiar delineations have become perforated, ruptured, or perhaps completely dismantled, and that our historical categorizations of the natural world are no longer useful. In the Anthropocene, as in the art studio, there is no place or thing that we have not fundamentally changed or created the conditions for being. But unlike some kind of ideal world of our creating, the Anthropocene is less a situation than it is a condition; wheels have been put into motion which are unlikely that we can halt without deliberate global agreement and action. It is becoming more evident that we have not committed to, devised, or even proved plausible the appropriate brakes. In this world, both the art world and our global planet, we need to cling to art’s most radical embodiments, entanglements, and perceptual and social possibilities. It is in this broader and ever-complicating world that we need more art that explores what we find and see in the landscape around us.

Jessica Lund-Higgins (left), Anna Collette (right), installation view

For their April exhibition, Foraged, Grizzly Grizzly smartly paired the photography of Anna Collette and “tiny sculpture” of Jessica Lund-Higgins. Each body of work on view explores remnants of places, suggesting a disarming elegance and order to the world but also a melancholy-tinged fossilization. Places very seldom stay in stasis, however there are two important ends to this spectrum that are subverted in this exhibition. On one hand we have quiet places where very little happens, things accumulate or dissipate rather slowly, perhaps changing at such a rate that the daily passerby would not see how things transform. The other extreme are places of calamity, rupture, and events where stories are birthed and myths are made. Collette’s recent work in Gathering Ground considers landscapes of the latter variety but in her method of isolating subjects with a studio backdrop buffers them from the full intensity of narrative change. Lund-Higgins meditates on the seemingly everyday debris of place both man-made and natural in her amalgamated forms, but because of their deliberate removal from the landscape within formalist traditions (sculptural assemblage and ikebana arrangement) they become evidence of events and point to palpable stories of how we shape a place.

Places are smaller sites within landscape, but they are not the landscape itself. They can be birthed from intention, action, or neglect, but tend to be the site of activity or witnessed activity, intertwined with an inherent human definition. Both Collette and Lund-Higgins both show us the evidence of changing places, and each insert themselves into that place through their action of addition (Collette’s studio backdrop) or removal (the collection of materials by Lund-Higgins). Their respective sophisticated observations of weather events and physical damage in the landscape as well as the examination of the material present (and futures) of our places are both crucial underpinnings to how we must address the changing planet in artistic practice.

Collette has turned her lens on Central Texas, the most flash-flood prone region in the country according to the National Weather Service, whose patterns have escalated and radically changed over the past few years with fluctuating weather patterns and record temperatures. The isolated portraits of flood debris (made on site with a backdrop) ask more questions than they provide evidence, but her more expansive shots of downed and uprooted trees provide visual cues to this event narrative. These eerily surveillant shots, at a kind of low birds-eye view, looking down without a horizon, are formally arresting while speaking to a history of photographic land survey. The individual trees, also photographed using a studio backdrop, speak to traditions of early photographic data collection such as the methodological survey of early criminal anthropologic photography. As we certainly now recognize, it was a Sisyphean 19th century task of trying to collect physiological data from the human face to perhaps classify the physical attributes of an “average” or “likely” criminal. With Collette’s images we are similarly left with nothing but sculptural evidence of natural forces that speak not to what happened or caused it, but only the odd intrinsically unique beauty of what was left behind. The stillness and fragility of each tree and how they accumulated the auxiliary materials bound around its trunk are an engagingly counterbalance to the violence of the trampled dry landscape ravaged by floods in her other images. The desaturated palette somehow further sets the work away from historical conceptions of nature, begging the viewer to not place these works in the loaded arch of landscape art histories but instead within new and more complicated narratives.

Anna Collette, Untitled (Gathering Ground #73 and #85) Pigmented Ink Jet, 30” x 24

Lund-Higgins creates intimate sculptures that speak to the newfound norm of human materials within the natural landscape, romanticizing their found unity in classical forms that sometimes appear as natural remnants but mostly have the architectural grace of Eastern floral arrangements. A work like Sno-Cone is only 3 x 1 x 1 inches and its material list reads like an inventory: “shotgun shell, nylon twine, stuffing, thread, lichen, pin, foam insulation.” These unique composites reveal place (what we add to it, what we take away from it, what we find in it), as complex material strata to be mined and an ever-evolving social construct of human activity (and thus, remains). Lund-Higgins takes materials that are perhaps ordinary detritus and makes them both radically alien in their heightened gallery standing and uncannily transformed in a normalization of human and natural materials bound together. The world around us turns increasingly messy all of the time; the inherent human response is to ignore it, but the cost of this blind eye is to neglect an understanding of our new landscape. By bringing these realities into the gallery, Lund-Higgins calls into question what our new material world order is, and suggests that as you walk through the world to heed what you leave behind or look more closely to find what you can pick up and take with you.

There are qualities of these images and sculptures I find sobering but in them also find tremendous hope: that in detritus there is beauty and in chaos emerges an underlying order. And that is why we need so desperately for artists to continue to evaluate our sense of place in this troubled world, to both examine its change but also point to the generative capacity for remediation and the possibilities to move forward. The best artists choose subjects full of contradiction, as one should enter the studio with more questions than answers. These questions of place and landscape must be a priority for us to revisit frequently in the art of the contemporary moment, and we must thrive in the inherent ambiguity of cause/effect in this complicated epoch.

These reasons for celebrating the inconsistencies of the landscape are perhaps best summarized by photographer Frank Gohlke’s 1985 discussion of his landscape muse. He wrote, “But I would be less than candid if I did not admit that one of the many things that has drawn me to Mount St. Helens is the fear (and the fascination engendered by it) that it is an image of our future. Mount St. Helens is the only place on the continent where one can see so clearly the effects of forces comparable in scale to those produced by nuclear weapons. My experience there over several years has allowed me to feel, with a visceral immediacy unobtainable from words or images, the magnitude of the danger we face. This is sobering, but is has not led to terror or despair, because nature’s powers of generation and regeneration are everywhere in evidence and every bit as awesome as its powers of destruction. In ways I cannot entirely account for, it has strengthened my own capacity for hope. We may yet find the wisdom to discard our suicidal arsenals and the atavisms they serve. Time, and our own actions, will tell.” However, in our present moment we know that there are other risks to the balance of this planet that are less dramatic than nuclear arms and less easily visualized than volcanos, a penumbra of environmental effects like water temperatures, weather patterns, and changes to our fossil record. This exhibition beckons us forward to forage for the evidence that speaks of these new quieter realities that we can so easily turn a cold shoulder to, revealing new avenues for understanding our landscape today.

Installation view, Foraged

Kelsey Halliday Johnson is an artist, writer, and art historian who is a member of Vox Populi and the Curatorial Fellow of Photography & New Media at the Michener Art Museum; she is currently working on a project Making/Breaking the Binary: Women, Art & Technology (1968-85) that will be on view in Philadelphia this fall. Johnson studied art history at Princeton University, has an MFA in interdisciplinary fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania, and attended the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University.

Anna Collette received an MFA from the Yale University School of Art in 2003 where she received the George Sakier Memorial Award for Excellence in Photography. She has exhibited widely in the United States with solo exhibitions in Boston, New York, and Austin, TX and is represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston. Collette’s work is held in many public and private collections, most notably the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, FotoMuseum Antwerp, MIT List Visual Arts Center, and Yale University. Publications include The New York Times, Knack Magazine, and Art Review. Before being appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin in 2013, Collette served as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Jessica Lund-Higgins (b. 1986, Orlando, FL) is a visual artist working primarily in tiny sculpture. In the past thirteen years, she has moved thirteen times (generally eddying in the southern states of Alabama and Tennessee).  The following 5 things influence her work: Anna Karenina, Skins (UK,) her standard poodle (Moses,) mold, and fuss-bucketry.  She earned her M.F.A. from the University of Memphis in 2013 and her B.A. from the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2009. Lund-Higgins currently lives and works in New Haven, CT.


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