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In a 2005 piece written for Artforum, Tacita Dean laments the encroach of technology (at the time, a satellite phone and email capabilities) on Tristan da Cunha, a volcanic island hovering in the south Atlantic, considered one of the most remote places on Earth. Dean writes, “Maybe getting lost, or rather disappearing out of sight, has become an anachronism in our communication- crazed world.”1 Here, Dean neatly dovetails two imperatives, one historical, the other contemporary—on the historical hand, the disappearance of remote “undiscovered” terrain; on the contemporary hand, the attendant shrinking of the world, and an ever- sophisticated communication network that has little relation to geographical difference. We figure our world’s complexity today on this plane of information, communication, and interaction, rather than the bucolic splendors of an unspoiled nature; nature, in the Anthropocene after all, is hardly unspoiled.
April Street’s relief paintings, in her recent solo show at Vielmetter Los Angeles, harken back to the picturesque, or even the pastoral tradition, minus the shepherds. Street’s pieces suggest getting lost, disappearance in senses both deliberate and oblique. Her formal language is that of the natural world, both up close and at a great distance. Comprised of fleshy-hued nylon, her works are is stretched, bunched, and stapled over wood panels, and then finally painted. The softly irregular effect of the bunching recalls topography, like the knotty contours of lumps of wood, and also, tacitly, the shifting planes and flowing curves of the body. Beyond fruits, the suggestion of fruits, and the occasional braid, there are few discrete objects towards which to wonder or contemplate, only shifting landscapes and natural forms following the contours beneath.
Similarly, often Street simply suggests landscape—in proportion, form, perspectival layering, and color. The green-y, temperate zone in the upper right corner of Treasure Islands #1 (all works 2019) is framed by more arid terrain, the texture of rocks, and sand; from our high desert perch, the land beneath is curiously free of structures or people, even if you squint. The suggestive blends with the literal in Land with Fruits, which mostly resembles what could either be expanses of sandy rock or dusty wood. Yet in the upper left corner, a far-off-seeming pasture becomes a gelatinous pool of green, spilling like a waterway down the flesh-toned expanse comprising the rest of the work’s surface. Street’s landscapes are familiar even if they feel eerily invented. It is difficult to figure if her scenery references the subdivided ordering of arable land or if they’re simply an agreeable kind of wilderness—and if she, as their inventor, relishes the pleasure of being the first to see them.
In any case, Street futzes with spatial geography through-out, making of landscape something less majestic and more elemental to her overall compositions. Strata with Yellow Fruit toggles between distance and close-up, dreamily. Despite abstracted references to more traditional, panoramic landscape painting, Street’s use of foreground and background is less consistent. Falls with Poured Flower is absent any implied distant landscape but teeters between scales, implying rushing falls and mid-sized boulders at once, accessorized with taffy-like bands of liquid pink. Each piece in the show possesses stately consistency, owing to Street’s natural palette—rosy, pinky browns, light and grassy greens. Her forms reference rivers, rocks, fruit, and strata, and the effect remains contemplative even as Street distorts it, conjuring through her materials the kind of eerie, unmannered growth attributable to unseen science.
Though no image of a machine, or for that matter, a human being, manifests (Speaking In Tongues #1 and #2 and Treasure Islands #1 and #2 do all depict braids of hair), it’s possible to read Street’s work as figuring the natural tensions of the Anthropocene. Strata with Yellow Fruit’s even contours of grass green suggest the geometricizing, taming influences of machines, or strategic agricultural practices, like encouraging animals to graze within set limits. A painting in the picturesque tradition, Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire (1834), pictures this overtly— shepherds tend to grazing sheep who form fields of evenly graded grass; people walk from one point to another creating trails in the landscape that then become dusty roads. Cole’s title alone, ominous now, but perhaps once aspirational, alludes to a societal digestion of wild landscape into a tamed, ordered space for living, movement, and pleasurable viewing. Street removes the people and the machines, but the order remains, as if by forces so sophisticated as to be invisible.
Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” from which Street takes her exhibition title, pictures the titular Lady, isolated, living on an island, cursed to continuous weaving, and watching the goings-on of the outside world in a nearby mirror. This serves to fascinate a would-be suitor (Sir Lancelot) passing by on his way to Camelot. The Lady, similarly smitten at Lancelot’s reflection, leaves her island for Camelot, solitary in a boat, but dies floating on the river before she reaches the city. The themes of brittle purity and frustrating unknowability are paralleled in Street’s budding fruit and blooming natural forms which picture an impossibly beguiling, constantly renewing landscape, never quite in focus. The press text cites the “World Landscapes” of the Flemish Renaissance as a reference for Street, paintings which sought an idealized, panoramic order—an exercise in imagination as much as in imagined mastery. Street’s play with scale, then, may be either anti-monumental or offered as a corrective counterpoint wherein a foregrounded fruit occupies the same compositional space and importance as a distant bucolic view.
While Street’s works move and pool with a graceful asymmetry—encouraging the kind of getting lost that Tacita Dean yearned to find—they embody the curious lack of friction, conflict, or angst intrinsic to the formal language of World Landscapes (which often depicted dramatic stories from Biblical and historical narratives within a compositionally overwhelming panoramic environment). Pastoral painting often lands at some point in the continuum between scenographic accuracy at one end, and total abstraction of color, line, and plane at the other. Street’s work straddles these, and is not overt in any depiction of the tension between the natural world and our indelible, continuing imprint on it, though the climate crisis inevitably colors our contemporary reading of a landscape. The main thrust of Street’s tacit critique is formal—her allusions to centuries-old landscape painting and to Tennyson’s Camelot picture an idealized past that never quite comes into view, perhaps because it was never really there.
Aaron Horst is a homosexual. He contributes to Carla, Flash Art, and ArtReview.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 19.