Rock, Paper, ScissorsApril 16, 2015
Notes from di Rosa is produced in conjunction with Art Practical's yearlong residency at di Rosa, in which the museum's collection serves as a focus and cornerstone for an in-depth exploration of Northern California contemporary art.
Why are we so easily sated by mere representations of land?
“I’d like for pretense to be set aside,” artist Richard T. Walker says flatly in the opening minutes of his two-channel HD video the predicament of always (as we are) (2014). Walker, the sole human who appears in his video, is standing on a desert expanse of rippling white sand, evocatively in conversation with the land and admitting his own frustration for not being able to get closer to it with language. He reiterates: “I’d like to bypass cliché, as valuable as it is.” Within a few moments, both channels turn to footage of Walker trying to balance palm-sized rocks on the flat speaker of a Panasonic cassette player. A small choir of unseen voices begins to melodically lull in concert with the strum of an electric guitar and the strokes of a Casiotone keyboard. The rocks sit, listening, until the scene turns to reveal them being picked up and tossed toward the frets of the guitars, which are now shown secured to tripods within the land. With each toss of a rock, a new tonality is amplified among the surrounding chaparral, grasses, and mountain vistas. Abandoned by his own words, the artist is coolly keen on taking his monologue and turning it into a dialogue.
the fallibility of intent is the first institutional solo exhibition of Walker’s work in the Bay Area and is currently on view in the Gatehouse Gallery of di Rosa, the eponymously named collection of Rene and Veronica di Rosa. The di Rosas collected regionally and prolifically for more than 40 years; their over 2,000 collected works have been preserved in situ in their former residence, and exhibited in the circuitously adjoined Main Gallery and surrounding Sculpture Meadow. Situated on 200 acres in the Carneros region of the internationally beloved Napa Valley, landscape is no stranger here. The very grounds on which the di Rosa sits, as well as the pieces held within its constructed walls, are replete with invitations to consider human representations and meditations on land, artistic or otherwise. There is a celebrated tension in traveling to a location as awe-striking as the rolling hills of Napa Valley to view art, and a quick question arises: Why are we so easily sated by mere representations of land, even when the source is physically available to us? If an archive is a gesture against death, then what do these representations and records of the land either abate or console within us? In the game of rock, paper, scissors, why does paper cover rock?
Like di Rosas’ impulse to record the region’s notable and emerging artists, many pieces in the permanent collection illustrate a broader human urge to record and contain the land. Exemplifying this is Robin Lasser’s Wall Mural Opens Up Any Room and Gives It That Greater Outdoor Feeling (1990–1991). Lasser’s black-and-white photograph portrays an intimate staggering of trees disrupted by four large, vertical mirrors. The mirrors show what is assumedly the opposite side of the grove, where similar trees are clustered and three deer are gathered, furtively addressing any onlookers. It’s hard to say if the deer are looking at us head-on through the glass of the mirror, or staring only at our backs. Nonetheless, the viewer is hard-pressed not to look on, through the glass that protects the photograph, and through the mirrors that depict the deer’s form. Where photographs are often used as means to grant viewers an infallible inside eye on the natural world, Lasser’s image only increases its mystery, and perhaps even humiliates our need to surveil. As viewers standing in the interior of a gallery, we are not only transported to the exterior without step, we are also, by way of the mirrors, provided eyes to see what is not in front of us. Like the quixotic title suggests, we are given “that greater outdoor feeling,” but in the process, the actual figure of the trees and animals between them have been flattened three times: by the mirror that was physically placed in the land, by the shutter of the camera and the image’s chemical impression on the film, and finally by its reproduction in the photographic print.
Gordon Huether’s steel-and-glass Di Rosa Pyramid (1997), which sits on the southeast end of the Sculpture Meadow, is another work where we witness land that has been tempered by our own structures. From afar, the pyramid’s four glass walls gleam, as do the countless pieces of pebble-size glass that create a circular ground cover below and around its confines. Three of four walls are scrolled with curious ciphers and rectangular fields of colored glass. The fourth wall is nondescript—it has neither cipher nor color. Its unmarked transparency instead reveals a large rock that has been cloistered within this futuristic atrium. Alone atop so much gleaming glass, the natural rock looks suddenly alien, its otherness made even more pronounced by the unkempt weeds ardently growing through the glass ground and encroaching on the sculpture with desperate urgency. Here in isolation, the rock is a slate for language, a stage for cast colors and dancing signs that vacillate with the movement of the sun.
Back in the Gatehouse Gallery, Walker employs isolation to a similar end in the fallibility of intent with cutout surrogates of rocks and mountaintops that appear in multiple series in the artist’s exhibition. At times adhered directly onto a rock as in the series a paradox in distance (inverted) (2014) and the plight of inconsequence (2014), while at others held up between fingers, or on a large tongue depressor to align with a mountain’s distant silhouette, the paper stand-ins at once obstruct a true photographic depiction of the land formation and concurrently illuminate the artist’s own yearning. Walker’s is an earnest slapstick; the paper cutouts are as obvious a pretense as Walker could guard against, though they represent the only tools we have at our disposal to bring the land within our grasp. The roughly cut paper around each vignetted summit is human-made and -mobilized—crudely aware of its own limits but instructive nonetheless. Like language, these renderings may be far from sensorial perception, but they enable the relativity that produces communication.
Words (and artworks) may be an insufficient means to describe or represent our desire for connectedness to land.
Walker, Lasser, and Huether’s works all reinforce the often-conflated distinction between landscape and land. Landscape is land that has been formalized—if not by our hands, then certainly by our minds—and without this formalization, address becomes all the more difficult. Where we cannot get close physically, landscape is the language with which we can engage psychically to abate the chasm in Walker’s narration when he says that he sees “words as these sort of clunky blocks of wood, with these gaps in between, and those gaps are where it sort of lacks, where it’s frustrated.”1 Engaging instead with landscape, we are absolved of the necessity to interact directly with the material of land—something that in practice, we may fail at—but perhaps are left all the more inclined to attempt to do so. The di Rosa’s land, like much of California, is in drought. As Walker prophesizes, words (and artworks) may be an insufficient means to describe or represent our desire for connectedness to land, especially in its deprived state, but these efforts nonetheless afford a great gain in the breath that language and art can bring to otherwise mundane, thirsty living. This is the act of poetry, a poetry that is deftly choreographed in both Walker’s exhibition and many works within the permanent di Rosa collection. From the Gatehouse Gallery to the Main Gallery and into the Sculpture Meadow, the density of rocks do the work of our own inarticulate tongues, and the sunset mourns in the reverb of a guitar.