by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ow would my high school art students react to the notion of landscape in "Contested Ground: The Landscape Redrawn"? (The MAC's new exhibition continues though August.) They might expect majestic panoramas made popular by Hudson River School painters like Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt. Many students of art would be familiar with less-realistic landscapes from Impressionists, even the Fauves. Or they might recognize the abstract desert vistas of an early American modernist like Georgia O'Keeffe or the stark depictions of an increasingly urbanized society by Charles Demuth.
But without context, could my 16- and 17-year-olds understand the depictions of landscape in the MAC's new show? Josh Keyes' pop-aesthetic paintings dissect landscapes as if the world were some kind of "organism or machine." Susie Lee's mixed-media installations focus not on landscape as a whole, but on such vital elements as water and light. Certainly Cat Clifford's purposefully crude stop-motion animations of a day spent contemplating the sights and sounds of Seattle's harbors would appeal to young viewers. And while some of the work in "Contested Ground" might require an intellectual stretch, it's a worthwhile effort. Landscape isn't just a thing to be looked at; it's a thing to be experienced, engaged in, connected to. It's our foundation, our future. Regardless of viewers' age or background, "Contested Ground" has as much widespread appeal as any exhibition challenging us to reconsider where we live, as well as how we live.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or me, the exhibition operates on several levels -- often the first sign that something extraordinary is going on. First, this is contemporary work the likes of I haven't seen locally outside of a handful of arts venues. Keyes, for example, was featured in Juxtapoz magazine, which spawned such mainstream media appeal as pop-surrealism and the increasing use of so-called lowbrow motifs. This Yale University and Chicago Art Institute graduate exhibits regularly throughout the United States and was recently included in an ABC News Brief about the "green renaissance" movement among Bay Area artists. His work is intentionally slick, irreverent, yet cutting-edge critical of the myriad ways in which we compartmentalize nature with fences, roadways and signage. His "Interlock #1," part of a series, shows a deer in a fenced clearing monitored by a surveillance camera alongside a parking lot with a camping sign, with HGTV designer colors and a cartoon-like rendering of space. Absurd? To go camping in California's Yosemite, you need to buy tickets ... just as if you're going to a concert. Keyes brilliantly turns the mixed-up world on its end.
Second, "Contested Ground" presents many tangents, many ways to consider the landscape. The most far-reaching is the highly conceptual work by Lee, including "Rings of St. Genevieve," which references a Missouri town flooded in the 1700s as well as the 7-year-old French girl destined for sainthood in 400 A.D. Lee's piece magnifies the elements by projecting a video of water droplets rippling onto a water-filled container -- a curious cross-reference among illusions, faith and forces of nature. Mathew Picton's documentary renderings of cracked road surfaces are conceptual yet beautiful, carrying the appeal of any complex cartography. Picton also casts resin into his "Cracked Lakebed" series, contrasting scale and context in a set of luminous sculptures that resemble miniaturized mountain ranges. Like Clifford and Lee, Picton's process-oriented work expresses the evolution of nature over time, be it the cessation of waves from a day at the beach or just a single drop of water along the surface. The result of viewing the works together is like a complex flavor savored in the mouth. It makes viewers want to linger.
Finally, the work in "Contested Ground" is aesthetically diverse. It's familiar and yet visually refreshing. Bill Will's "Reconstitution," for example, reminds me of Louise Nevelson's 1980s wood constructions. Resembling a giant tree (but also an airplane) bisecting the gallery, "Reconstitution" was made during the 2004 election year as "an obsessive, labor-intensive and somewhat futile attempt to put something back together," says Will in his artist's statement. He's playing with words, perhaps: More than just expressing the cycle of wood from tree to commercial goods to tree to art, he's hinting at the politicization of nature in general and natural resources in particular. Victoria Haven's work, meanwhile, points to localized politics of urban planning with "Wonderland" -- a massive, wall-sized mountain, appearing like a stencil cut from fake wood grain and extending a mere inch from the wall to create the suggestion of shadow. This Seattle-based artist references both the Wonderland Trail on Mount Rainier and the setting for Lewis Carroll's Alice -- humorous and disconcerting, emulating a roller-coaster structure. But her trail maps also signify control/encroachment by humanity upon dwindling wild places that were once pristine.
There's room to wander in this exhibition, both aesthetically and intellectually. As the American landscape continues to change, a new one has emerged: the vista created by the arts, including the wide-open spaces overlaid by a dense network of conceptual ideas explored in must-see exhibitions like this one.
"Contested Ground: The Landscape Redrawn," through Aug. 17 at the Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture, 2316 W. First Ave. Hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 am-5 pm. Tickets: $7; $5, seniors and students; free, children 5 and younger. Visit www.northwestmuseum.org or call 456-3931.