Saturday, June 10, 2017

Landscapes of Life & Death

Donna J. Wan

Landscapes of Life & Death
by Mary Anne Redding
Guest Curator

The exhibition, Landscapes of Life & Death, offers a poignant opportunity to look at life, loss, death and the fragile ecosystems we inhabit. Spanning emotionally fraught landscapes of human death as well as environmental landscapes of devastation and renewal, six contemporary photographic artists, Lynne Buchanan, Kevin Horan, Marietta Patricia Leis, Ella Sala Myers, Kevin O’Connell and Donna J. Wan, address the nuances of loss and grief, both for themselves and for the planet, by examining our intimate connections with nature. The idea of death generally makes people uncomfortable, especially when it’s the intimate experience of human death, the death of a beloved pet, or the mass destruction of life and landscape after a devastating fire. Yet many artists explore the shape of loss as a meditation, whether through contemplation of their own passing or through a more universal meditation on loss and grief. Many artists are exploring the no-longer-subtle effects of climate change on the landscape, and on those of us who inhabit altered lands. Photographs, grounded as they are in the “real”—or at least some approximation of reality given digital interventions—reveal a unique vision of the cycles of life and death, often in a public setting. How do contemporary photographic artists grapple with the nuances of loss, of death and life, on both a personal scale and the broader scope of a seared landscape or endangered wildlife inhabiting polluted waterways and lands?

Marietta Patricia Leis

Marietta Patricia Leis (New Mexico) writes: “The Antarctic is a place so special, so untouched and regal in its natural beauty. The magnificence of the glaciers, mountains, icebergs and yes, storms dwarfing the ship and our ‘humanness’ were beyond anything I had ever experienced. The raw and untouched surroundings felt like being on Earth on the day of its birth.” At the apex, birth is difficult. Drawn to “the end of the earth” because of its position on the planet, Leis did not initially anticipate the dangers of navigating the Drake Passage, even in a seasoned Russian Research vessel. On a trip that took two additional harrowing days, a furious storm and, 50-foot waves pounded the sturdy boat and its sea-sick inhabitants who were lashed to their bunks for safety (even the captain later admitted he had never experienced seas so rough). The storm ended in a sunrise so heartbreaking and beautiful it struck its viewers as a precious gift: they had survived. Ever an artist, Leis managed to photograph the storm through her cabin window and record the sounds of the boat creaking as it crashed through the unrelenting waves. 

Lynne Buchanan

Lynne Buchanan (Florida) creates artwork that is place specific, exploring, initially, the protected watersheds and wild riparian areas of her home state of Florida; at the same time, she acknowledges that water issues do not stop at the borderlines of municipalities or states. Instead she sees the interconnected and global nature of our environmental problems, exploring water issues across the United States, in Iceland and in Patagonia. The world’s waterways, she writes, “are treasures that are being irreparably damaged from the negative impacts of climate change, agricultural pollution, population and urban growth, and land development. The preservation of water should not be a partisan issue. It is a basic human right that we all need to work together to preserve”. In the deserts of the Southwest, where dams and water usage wars scar the landscape, Buchanan’s photographs are a call to action to preserve our natural resources for both their natural beauty and their essential role in species survival. 

Kevin Horan 
(Washington) began his photographic exploration of the death and metamorphosis of animals when he stumbled upon the scene of a dead deer still bleeding in the snow. Initially horrified, Horan presumed the deer had been killed by careless hunters interested only in the kill, who left without dressing the meat to use for food. Moving closer to photograph the buck, he realized it had been brought down by coyotes or wolves, and his approach had scattered them into the trees to wait, watching, until he left. Moved to ruminate on the words of a friend who was afraid of dying, Horan now seeks out the cycles of life in the natural world as a way of coming to terms with parsing his own physicality. Looking at the still animals, not seeing but sensing the microscopic life that continues, or the dark burnt trees ravished by fire yet carpeted with green soft shoots, brings to mind the poetry of e. e. cummings: 

… for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes … 1
Kevin Horan

Donna J. Wan
 (California) is drawn to “suicide destinations,” those places where people suffering from profound despair will travel, often at great distances from where they live, to situate themselves in nature, in sublimely beautiful landscapes one last time before ending their lives. From her personal experience and research, Wan has found these places are frequently near water, mountains or valleys. She does not pretend to know why anyone chooses the locations they do, nor is it her intent to romanticize places of death, rather, she hopes that her elusively hazy and delicately soft-focused images, which she believes reflects the clouded state of the suicidal mind, will provide just the barest glimpse into the minds of those “that may have thought that dying in these beautiful places was a peaceful way to end their suffering.” 

Kevin O’Connell 
(Colorado) has a rare form of cancer. He has spent more time than he would like to recall in hospital rooms, in his own room, confined, enduring the process of illness and therapy. Turing to his camera, the artist seeks release from the discomfort, from the ongoing battle between the pain and his weak body, from his struggle to do something with the hours of inactivity, of waiting. Intensely personal, O’Connell’s series,100 Days (inside), 2006 was made while he was undergoing blood transfusions and other invasive cancer treatments. Seeking instant gratification, the artist aimed his Polaroid camera at the shadows and corners of his room, looking for the reward of light, color, and form that pushed past the physicality of the walls, the inescapable smells, and the scratchy sheets, to release, to creativity. 

Kevin O'Connell

The final part of this exhibition is a tribute to the young artist, Ella Sala Myers (New Mexico)—Ella’s life ended when she died at the age of 16 in a tragic plane crash. Ella, along with two other students, Michael Sebastian Mahl and Ella Jaz Kirk, were eco-monitors for the Aldo Leopold Charter School in Silver City, New Mexico studying the effects of the newly formed burn scar created by the Signal Fire in the Gila Wilderness. The students were part of the Youth Conservation Corps, monitoring water quality on the Gila River and San Vicente Creek and researching soil and forest ecology for the US Forest Service. During a reconnaissance flight over the path of the flames, the weather changed unexpectedly and the small plane crashed as the private pilot tried to land. No one survived. The short film, cloud photographs and text—reveal a young artist on the brink of a career in the arts—honor the New Mexican landscape, clouds and water, horses and family. 

Ella Sala Myers
In many ways, these are the moments that are important to each of us: the landscapes in which we live, our families, and our animal companions. The artists in Landscapes of Life & Death understand that the future of our individual self-preservation, the ongoing exceptionalism of Antarctica, or the beauty of Florida’s waterways are threatened not only by personal action or inaction, but also by global climate change and geopolitical competition for natural resources and other short-sited economic or political gain. We all live and we all die downstream. What are you going to do about the climate we have, personally and collectively, created? 

Mary Anne Redding is currently Curator at the Turchin Center. She was previously the Curator of the Marion Center for Photographic Arts and the Chair of the Photography Department at Santa Fe University of Art & Design. And before that was the Curator of Photography for the Palace of the Governors/New Mexico History Museum. She has more than twenty-five years experience working as a curator, archivist, librarian, educator, and arts administrator.

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