Garden Variety

16th century engraving envisioning the Hanging Gardens of Babylon

In her 1972 article, “A View of Modernism,” published in ArtForum, Rosalind Krauss describes the Modernist progression of -isms as a series of rooms in a line. Theorists and artists during the Modern period, she says, perceived each leap into a new ideal art as the entering of a new room, with the door to the previous room closing securely behind them.

No à rebours was possible, no going backward against the grain. The history we saw from Manet to the Impressionists to Cézanne and then to Picasso was like a series of roms en filade. Within each room the individual artist explored, to the limits of his experience and his formal intelligence, the separate constituents of his medium.The effect of his pictorial act was to open simultaneously the door to the next space and close out access to the one behind him.

When Krauss wrote this essay, however, she was standing in the swirling waters of what had been dubbed Postmodernism. The doors to all of the rooms had recently burst their hinges. Anything became fair game; any part of history was a sampler platter of possibilities. Looking at where painting, specifically, is right now, I have been picturing Rosalind Krauss’ line of rooms as walled gardens, like the Secret Garden Francis Hodges Burnett described in her book by the same name. Each room of painting ideas, as the door was closed, stood in its semi-neglected space, planted in the forms of its own ideals and quietly continuing to put down roots and send runners. The plants went to seed and produced new hybrids of their predecessors. Weeds grew up and some mealy or weak ideas were choked out. The neat form of the original garden became overgrown, but still full of life—there may have been some secret gardeners who snuck in to tend it periodically. If you look at exhibitions like Painter Painter, at the Walker Art Center currently, you can find the sprouts and vines of Arte Povera, Conceptualism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Geometric abstraction, Art Informel, Constructivism, Suprematism, etcetera. Look at the uncannily similarly named Painters’ Painters coming up at Saatchi, and you see another set of rooms airing out… all of the above, plus the more figurative rooms of Surrealism, History Painting, Appropriation, Pop and Photograph-based painting. Wooly and unkempt! But very, very alive.

Ajay Kurian

Ajay Kurian, an artist working in Brooklyn, caught my eye with another set of ideas relating to gardening as a philosophical tool. I wish I could have attended this talk at the New Museum:

Ajay Kurian will present a Proposition that suggests “the garden” as a new metaphor for time and space. Kurian is an artist and curator who has run the itinerant project “Gresham’s Ghost” since 2008. “The Persistence of Gardens—Nuclear, Digital, and Otherwise” will serve to workshop ideas for Kurian’s upcoming solo show at 47 Canal. Unlike previous Propositions where a speaker’s presentation is followed by a panel or critical response, Kurian’s talk will be interrupted by J0HN, a projected presence within the theater.

On the ideas in his talk, Kurian writes: “Stromatolite is a fossilized record of ancient microorganisms that stretches back to the very beginning of life on Earth nearly 3 billion years ago. But does looking at this colorful rock really give you a sense of what has persisted and fallen away for so many eons? Does knowing the half-life of plutonium give you any sense of what the future will look like 14,000 years from now? How then can we legislate such stretches, let alone conceive of them? How are we to regard something that makes our finitude look squeamishly brief, especially when our focus tends towards those things that seem to persist not for eons but for mere seconds. The screen time that has come to dominate our lives can sometimes appear to be Narcissus’ pool, but as the larger objects of our planet begin to rumble – as the oceans rise, hurricanes hit, and radioactive waste is buried – our tiny kingdoms are beginning to feel the unwelcome shake. Through touring gardens both metaphorical and metaphysical, and speaking with J0HN, we will approach time as the persistence of things, emerging from objects rather than the reverse, and I will begin to reckon with my preoccupations: why does everything I think about recently exceed the human? And why does J0HN disagree with me so much?”


Keep your eyes peeled

In my memory, I spent a good portion of my young life astonished. The sight of certain things would catch my breath, and make me feel unattached to my body or to the ground– and at the same time, very harmonious. Corners of cities, lights on water, trees and animals and interiors viewed from inside a car at night. Heartbreaking, painstaking. Music could have the same effect. Films. What series of adult concerns conspire to dull these sensitivities? What can be done to reawaken them?

The other day, I committed myself to looking. My acclimated auto-pilot brain knows where my body should go, while I grapple with the same interior tetris of details and goals and responsibilities. So, I said to myself, “Stop. Look. Look again. Peel your eyes. Don’t go back inward to your dullsville pattern. Look. Look again.” And, unsurprisingly, there were so so many things to see. The same stretch of road that I’ve walked hundreds of times gave up treasures out of its side. A consortium of ugly and surprising and beautiful and pathetic images crowded into view. People of all sorts were noticed. I drank the sight of them in. It takes a strange sort of discipline to fight against the brain’s habits, but the return is worth it.

Look. Look. Look again.