From neoclassical portraits to sublime seventeenth-century landscape paintings, to today's photographs, depicting the relationship between human figure and ground has always been an intentional decision of artists. The human presence is felt in art even when figures are absent from the works themselves. Artists can place humans in the foreground as dominant, or in the background, or at a midpoint in harmony with nature. It is no secret, then, that as humans we feel entitled to the land we occupy, even within the art we create. This Abrahamic perception of nature has resulted in a disruption of truth, and a sense of isolation.
The Intimacy of Distance / Explorations of the Figure/Ground, a new exhibition opening at the Marshall Gallery, addresses the interrelation between human figures and naturistic backgrounds. The exhibit focuses on what the seventeen featured artists call the "psychological effects produced by the figure/ground relationship." The works feature humans posed against the rest of the composition: balconies, skyline views, wide open fields; standing, sitting, gazing into mirrors.
The photography and other photo-derived artistic processes used here convey truth and offer a realist proximity to nature not provided by paintings. Through this we see the consequences of human greed, and our aloofness to earth's splendor. Issues that come to mind while looking at these works include the environmental crisis and the impacts of colonization.
Featured artist Liz Miller-Kovacs's piece Amboy Effigy (2020) shows a crouched human figure wearing a hot pink body stocking that envelops from head to toe like a membrane; Miller-Kovacs deliberately placed the person between the National Chloride Company's salt evaporation canals in the Mojave Desert; and according to the artist, the figure's posture is supposed to echo the prehistoric "Venus" stone figurines believed to be fertility effigies.
The figure in Amboy Effigy may hold some responsibility in the cause of environmental damage, yet they enjoy the luxury of being protected. At the same time, the perceived femininity of the person points us toward the intersectionality of environmental issues. Gender-based discrimination is intrinsically tied to the climate crisis, as feminine forms, and gendered language, such as "Mother Nature," can exist within environmental discourse.
While not all of the photographic art here brings to mind environmentalism, the selections arguably echo Miller-Kovacs's idea: how mankind has changed the earth and how these ramifications affect humans psychologically and physiologically, and her focus, using photography and other processes to "reflect" on what she calls the manmade "otherworldly aesthetic" of today's landscapes.
"Who are we?" is a question the show's organizers, Lawrence Gipe and Douglas Marshall, seem to encourage. Are we strangers, shadows, reflections, or nature itself? This selection of images seeks to understand the human position in an ever-changing, apocalyptic ecosystem. What does it look like when life is forced to fight life, and nature adapts to survive?
The Intimacy of Distance/Explorations of the Figure/Ground will be on view from September 10 to October 27, 2022 at the Marshall Gallery, located at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave. #A6, Santa Monica, California.