Sunday, December 28, 2014

"As Above So Below:" Guide to Landscape by Teresita Fernandez

Teresita Fernandez's show, As Above, So Below at MassMOCA is so large that it occupies several vast galleries, one of which is so high that it can be viewed from three levels. Each gallery installation refers to landscape: "Black Sun" is landscape. 
Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun, 2014, from ground floor

Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun,
2014, from mezzanine

Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun, 2014,
from second floor balcony
"As above, so below," the title of the show, is a phrase 
that suggests a liberating point of view on landscape: It's already had a real effect on my experience of a wild landscape. 

The Museum website's page explains it thus: "Describing a universe in balance, the phrase “as above, so below” originates from the ancient Hermetic tradition central to alchemy, in which every action occurring on one level of reality (physical, emotional, or mental) correlates to every other." I'm used to thinking of presence and absence, one or the other—opposites.

It's the assumption of balance that that threw me, especially close to the winter solstice—in November, when I saw the show, and December, and when I was hiking in wetlands along the Columbia River in Washington State. Balance has never been in my thoughts at this gloomy season, when the myth of Persephone's capture and temporary release from the Underworld makes intuitive sense. Landscapes seem to reflect a natural cycle of abundance and deprivation. The light in the sky is either more or less present to us; lavished or withheld. 

In Fernandez's "Black Sun," however, she models this idea of balance in a work that is  visually arresting and at the same time can have a real physical effect on the body and senses. Created of translucent tubing in variously saturated yellow and gray, hung from the three-story ceiling. It is otherwise virtually impossible to describe. Even though it is fixed, it is never the same.
Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun, 2014, from
the ground floor

With every shift of the viewer's position, "Black Sun" appears quite different, and the new aspect of the installation reflects a new aspect of the viewer. As I moved along beneath it, and to different heights vis-à-vis the naturally lit work, only my position made the work present new aspects and moods. Sometimes the gray-black would block the yellows and make me cringe under its gloom. From other stations it could fill the room with golden glow; it could be a storm coming on, or the promise of life after the deluge. The light and dark, clouds and sun, hope and despair are divided only by the viewer's position, anticipation, and interpretation. As a model of a landscape through which we move, "Black Sun" remains in balance. Neither golden nor black ever dominates absolutely.

Fernandez shows us "Black Sun" even when we aren't looking at it. Reflection and shadow—secondary, we believe, and out of the artist's control—are nevertheless central to her visual awareness. This breadth of visual consciousness is a central connection to landscape. For Fernandez's work doesn't have only one, solid focal point. She recognizes that the viewer for  landscape has to keep moving. Landscape isn't something one takes in from a single place.

It excites me that Fernandez's work refers not to a genre of art but to real landscape. She's not referring to painting by Constable or Turner. Scale is crucial. Her works in As Above, So Below imitate natural landscape by being so large that a viewer cannot take a stand and claim to have seen them. Without movement, there's no way to know them. Hence the multiplicity of focal points, discovered with movement.

Viewers can find eccentric, personal points of orientation within "Black Sun" or any works in Fernandez's show. "Black Sun" enlivens one's peripheral vision and sixth sense. Shadows make or extend shapes beyond the literal limits of the work, where you might not normally even turn your eye. Moving under, around, and above this work, I discovered that I used my eyes and senses the way I would outside of an art gallery, letting them roam, return, and reorient.

Teresita Fernandez,
Bonsai, 2014. Object
and reflection.
Teresita Fernandez, Black Sun and painting from Golden
India ink on reflective gold-chromed panels, 2014
In open landscape, vastness can both stimulate and overwhelm. When we look into tremendous expanses, we are eager to find details to give us focus, lest we lose our bearings and flounder in the undifferentiated desert, field, or forest. To focus on tiny events, minute variations, and their immediate environs helps us tame our sense of vulnerability. We put on blinkers that allow us take in only what we can deal with. Naturalists construct our understanding of the world thus, by observing details that eventually add up. Their sum creates whatever ease humans can realize in outsized natural landscape.

Teresita Fernandez, Golden series painting, detail. India ink on
gold-chrome panel. (See full view, above)
Fernandez nods specifically to our search for focus in her painted landscapes, made with India ink on gold-chromed panels. Water-based ink brushed onto a metallic support does not take precise direction from an artist. Even to get coverage to the point of real blackness has to require very considerable patience. Ink will shrink from a metallic surface in unpredictable ways, forming its own shapes and textures. 

In the minute detail of the enormous painting pictured above, hanging in the gallery with "Black Sun," one has to search for any details in what appears to be a night sky that has drained all its life into the golden ground. Searching begets further searching as the eye is rewarded with specks of golden "light" that the ink fails to cover. This particular landscape painting turns the viewer into an explorer: We must keep walking the length of the huge piece, viewing it from different angles, to catch what "starlight" flashes reveal themselves.

Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Clamas, Washington
Since seeing the Fernandez work at MassMOCA, I've been in Washington state, hiking along the Columbia River Gorge in tremendous landscape of expansive sky, low clouds, distant cliffs, and vast, reedy marshes underfoot. Fernandez devised work large enough to make her viewer move and explore from many positions, but its scale cannot compare with the reality of a place like the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. My photograph of the landscape reduces the complexity of experience a hundred times over: That is, it turns it into a scene, like a painting. A picture never contains the doubt one feels in the reality of contrasting scale between one's body and its position in that place. The camera produces distance and adds an idea of nonexistent control.

My reactions to such places mingle joy (in the beauty and freshness) and fear (awareness of the lack of knowledge and skill that make me vulnerable to accident). What delights me threatens me too. 

So how did my friend and I spend our day? We moved. Positioning and repositioning ourselves; measuring ourselves against the small things we observed carefully to give us a sense of where we were inside the landscape we saw when we arrived.

Leaning over a broken twig, trying to imagine how the grass got seeded in a tall tree stump, or admiring the world perfectly reflected upside down in a puddle—all were essentially comforting acts that allowed us to merge slowly with the landscape without becoming frozen in one position of fear, exploration's opposite. We knew the big picture because we sensed it constantly with our peripheral senses, in the shadows cast by moving clouds, the movement of the reeds in the wind, the rippling color on the water.

Beyond renewed awareness of the balance between the vast and small scales in the landscape, the idea, "As above, so below," provided a fascinating way to experience everything—not only the light (What did I mean by its being a "gray day?") but even the shapes in the landscape. Why were the clouds and the stream shaped as they were? Was it a balance with meaning? Reflections in the pond led my imagination further underground, to "see" more reflections. As above, so below.

When we left the Steigerwald Refuge that early December afternoon around 3:30, it was getting dark. It was night by 5:00. With a sigh, I began dreaming about the solstice when the light "comes back" again. Maybe it does come back. But I had to entertain a more sophisticated notion. Maybe I see the light from a different place, showing through worn spots in Nature, a naturally slippery and dynamic medium. 
Tersita Fernandez, detail from a Golden series painting, India ink on gold-chrome panel.

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