Tanya Marcuse’s large-scale still life photographs at the Julie Saul Gallery are a very timely resuscitation of pastoralism in what is now the juvenescence of autumn. Marcuse has five mural-sized photographs and six smaller works (including an artist’s book) in the exhibition, each of which captures a densely packed ecology of plants and animals. Some of the wildlife in her photographs are living, but the majority are beastly dead. I blew in the front door with a head full of leaves, and left feeling more at ease, centered, and connected. The timeliness of her photographs, either the result of cunning synchronicity or fortunate serendipity, penetrates the steady defamiliarization of autumn with iconic ephemera of the season at hand: dead and dried leaves, animal skins, and fruit. In Woven Nº 1 (2015) for instance, cherries, fairy roses, and twigs are stitched together with rotting apples, milkweed pods, and snake skins to produce a tapestry of pastoral symbolism. The needlework of nature captured therein has a panoramic impact. The endpoints of the image seem to extend beyond the photograph, producing an immersive quality that lingers like a ghost in the gallery.
Marcuse’s photographs hearken to the sentiment of transcendental art and writing, but they differ in their presentation of the sublime. In her photographs, the sublimity of nature emerges as feature of the artifice. The sublime as such is always already there, with the rugged immediacy of a Jackson Pollock. The abundance of life commingles with the evanescence of death all over Marcuse’s intricate works. Meanwhile, the quiddity of autumn rings like a bell in the background, reminding us that time is fleeting. A sense of time is present in her photographs as well. Ephemera from distant parts of the terrain gather together from the entropy of the wild. In Woven Nº 17 (2016), snake skins sit atop dismembered antlers, rotten apples, and an excess of debris. The warp and weft of her source materials present a sequence of intertwined indices embedded in each photograph. The pleasure of bearing witness to the dead and dried up wildlife in her work is the distinct privilege of the season. As Wallace Stevens tells us, “You like it under the trees in autumn, | Because everything is half dead.” This pastoral recursion of wildlife is presented on the surface, allowing viewers to inspect individual elements, or stand back to see them the round.
The post-transcendental pastoral of Marcuse’s photography problematizes a bare life perception of nature by aestheticizing the documentary function of the camera. The title of the exhibition — Woven — is significant here. The artist takes what were the barest threads of nature and weaves them into an embroidery of plants and animals in order to accentuate the aesthetic potential of the ephemera. Whether the threads woven by Marcuse were living or dead is a difference of their aesthetic potential in that regard, like the difference between grayscale and color. The aesthetic primacy of Marcuse’s photography is an important factor in an art historical description of her work, as well in the painting below In the Woods (1855) by Asher Brown Durand. Here, the darkly foregrounded decomposition of wildlife intimates Marcuse’s aesthetic in many ways. Indeed, Durand argued in his well-known column “Letters on Landscape Painting” that painters should study the things of nature rather than their painted likeness. This seventeenth century disillusionment signals and reflects Marcuse’s symbolic pastoralism, which presents a plurality of bare things of nature to manifest an aesthetics of solemn excess.
As distinct from the pastoral tradition, the transcendental tradition elides any aesthetics that has no concepts. Pastoral, on the other hand, originated in a pre-conceptual time, and survived chiefly as a symbol of nature’s aesthetic charm. A post-transcendental pastoralism such as Marcuse’s entails an update that resolves this difference. The update comes as the deus ex machina of the camera, which aestheticizes even while it documents. While Marcuse stages the ephemera of nature to enhance their allure, the camera itself stages a survey of the source material, documenting what looks to be death and what looks to be life, like a vulture stalking the dead. In each image, the “all-over” aesthetics of pastoral combine with the documentary aesthetics of death, like two sides of a coin. The camera’s documentary aesthetic emotes a dark balance to the abundance of pastoral symbolism, which Marcuse brings close to the surface with her photographic prowess.
In the poem Vulture, Robinson Jeffers describes the feeling of being circled by a vulture who thinks him dead. “What an enskyment; What a life | after death” says Jeffers to the thought of being eaten alive and carried skyward in the vulture’s belly. Marcuse’s post-transcendental pastoral cycles of regeneration and decay provides a contiguous counterpoint to the scavenging operations of innovation and obsolescence popularized by media-centric discourse. Her images, which use the documentary aesthetic of the photographic apparatus to mediate the pastoral idyllicism of nature, positions Marcuse as a scavenger of scavengers, homogenizing the death in nature to cannibalize the death of media. Her piecemeal presentation of an aesthetic groundscape threatened by the documentation of photography seems to court this comparison, while allowing the viewer to encroach upon a state of nature generally precluded by contemporary art.
Tanya Marcuse’s Woven exhibit is on display through November 25th at the Julie Saul Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, New York, NY.
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Michael Johnson is a writer based in New York. He works at David Zwirner Gallery and studies art history at NYU.
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