This story is familiar to those who took in Seattle Art Museum's retrospective of Thomas Moran, the painter of huge, grandiose images of the more spectacular corners of the West--also in service of the railroad companies. Certainly, the economic story of how these images came to be created is valuable in understanding them, but in the Henry's show, the focus on the mercantile uses of nature imagery at the very start of the exhibit creates an aura of bad faith that taints the work of many of the artists elsewhere in the show. We're not allowed to recline into the lushness of this or that landscape, because the early ones have all become suspect. The photographers are shills for the railroads, development, and tourism. The bucolic works of early landscape painters downplay man's effect on nature by minimizing humans and their structures in their paintings, thus telling a lie about what was actually going on: marshes drained, forests destroyed, and so on.
We pass into the modern era. The middle section of the show, in the old Henry's wide central gallery, plays images of the city off images of the country. The Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline become natural wonders, equal in pictorial impact to the Grand Canyon (as in a famous Berenice Abbott image of Wall Street); while Grant Wood, puttering away in his Iowan artists' colony, creates an absurdly sentimentalized and anachronistic depiction of agricultural labor. A choice is offered up, as if the artists themselves had been offered a similar one: show exactly what man is doing to the landscape now, or venture into fantasy. One path leads to social criticism, the other into bad faith. Neither option is very attractive.
The critical side is represented best by the Vietnam-era photographs of Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz. Their small black-and-white images of Western subdivisions under construction show how the pull of nature on man often results in nature getting paved over. The most novel section of Shifting Ground examines how the rise of the picture window changed the nature of landscape. Framed views of tidy nature blend interior and exterior, and suggest the human ability to view the world through blinkers, substituting a tidy image of nature for its messy reality. Sylvia Mangold's Valence with Grey Cloud, with trompe l'oeil painted-on masking tape framing an image of the sky, tells the story of this section in a single painting.
The Henry's current show ends with an odd trip to the future. After Robert Adams' unsparing documents of sprawl overtaking the untamed West, the final gallery's fantasia feels unearned. Kevin Appel takes the picture-window landscape genre and fragments it, blurring the distinction between inside and outside in an image of an Albert Frey-like house. Adam Ross creates a beautiful Futurama-type city seen from a distance, but claims he's imagining a future Los Angeles--one which conveniently omits all the amazing tensions and environmental tragedies that undergird that entire city. Victoria Adams' painting is near-indistinguishable from the 19th-century landscapes that opened the show, but the catalog and wall-texts plead that her image be read as an evocation of what we no longer have; unfortunately, her work's omissions of the human in the landscape seem just as compromising as those of her predecessors. The most apt work in this gallery is Cameron Martin's monochrome painting of the mountain from the Paramount film studio's logo. Here's a smart, contemporary way to show the intersection of nature and culture; the merchandising of nature summed up in a single, glorious peak.