Category Archives: photography
by Joshua Mason
Editor’s note: This essay is based on Mason’s presentation at DePaul University last October. Part II will be published next month.
This is Lake Superior. This is the beginning. It is where I am absorbed. What I see is the edge. You can learn a lot by observing the space where water and land meet. It is a dynamic landscape, ceaselessly changing. What is solid and what is fluvial merge as motions always giving and taking, pushing and pulling. As an artist I work on the edge where interpretation meets a chasm.
Forms as landslides and pigment rundowns create a geomorphic image better than any painting. Or should I say that this is the source of painting? This is painting when the painter no longer illustrates nature. This is painting when the painter steps out of their role as a prodder of form, or as the modernists called it ‘the artist as engineer.’ If I leave artworks to themselves, enticing the emergence of their own material formations, then the results are not a representation of nature but instead what nature does.
Landscapes in art are representations of what we imagine nature to be – we see ourselves in the mirror. Nature is reified or made into a giant heap ‘over there’ and colonized by our gaze. It seems that we had to classify nature, to explode it into its various parts in order to exploit it and render it into a resource. What the land appears to be and what it is, is confused. Landscape is a theatrical staging of nature: it constructs an apparatus of foreground and background, dividing what is to be there for a subject and what is to recede into the background. It presumes nature ‘made once over,’ but nature has only ever been a simulacrum—an invention of representation.
I am fascinated by a landscape ‘landing’ itself as a direct engagement with the materials and processes of paint, soil, and fluvial transitions. It is a kind of abstraction but it does not bracket-out the world in order to construct an ideal image: the land is what it does. The art object exists as a real object. It has qualities independent from representation, from beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes—whatever and however we think. It is a beauty that exists in the impossibilities of thought.
When I am absorbed into the land I realize that art is an object resonant with the catastrophic. As an artist I pass through the catastrophic in an attempt to emerge from it. Painting emerges out of uncertainty. Its object does what it wants to do and suggests what it wants to suggest. Painting is plastic, as in plasticity or the malleable or the flexible: it is a push and pull and tension in and out between emanation and erasure. There is no picture ahead of time – the results are not taken to be isomorphic with the origin. I am interested in a kind of painting that is immanent, always on the verge of morphing into something else. Stability is an illusion: each mark, each impact is a way-station moving on towards something else. In this way one may give value to what arises, outside of origins, as what arises retains value in and of itself.
Affirming an excitation of matter as a quality beyond interpretation, engaging with materials like paint and soil, fluvial processes and geomorphic impressions where every mark or gesture slides along an equality of probabilities, as a painter I negotiate an edge between my constructs (imagistic, historical, symbolic) and the collapse of coordinates into the intensity of the object. The magic of art is when the thing’s space collides into my space and I disappear.
At every moment in the formation of a painting there is a miniature catastrophe.
On occasion symbols appear. The horizontal line is an example: it is an index for a catastrophic layer. I am a catastrophist. That is an affirmation of existence. The black horizontal line will make its appearance outside the two-dimensional surface of painting and into the world, inscribing its mark upon the land in various installation works. It is a mark like the K/T boundary which as an event is completely unknown to us, but which as a trace is utterly catastrophic and relatable to our own age—the Sixth Extinction.
The point is not to create an enduring object but instead to shift through materials to find an object that is already a ruin. It is to anticipate its ruination. I’ve created a series of works I call Anthrogeodes. These objects take shape violently, like so many earth processes. They appear like geologic objects but are composed entirely of industrially-made materials. That is to say, they ape the appearance of the geologic or mimic it. The geologic is a heap of ruins. Industry is also a giant ruin and it leaves traces. The works are made of recycled foam, polyurethane, oil, acrylic, polystyrene, plastics, concrete, etc. – all found objects that are recycled into a work of art, and which would’ve otherwise ended up in the trash heap. Who knows how long they will last? They haunt a future without me.
If ‘all objects are breathing’ then art is a certain kind of breath – a special kind of tune. I am interested in the intersection between mark-making and landscape where the demarcations in the question – What is ‘human’ and what is ‘nature’ in this image? – begin to blur.
All images by the author.
See more of Joshua Mason’s work at Fieldwork Studios.
 The site of painting as a factory of elements organized by the artist’s mind, producing abstract arrangements: describing a certain quality of materialization of the artist’s mediation, the “engineering” gaze may be a modernist approach to painting like a piece of technology or manufacturing. It is an approach to matter where the relation to nature evokes a counter-image mobilized to reduce the nuances of nature to strictly quantitative harmonies. (See Werner Hartmann’s Painting in the Twentieth Century.) As a painter aware of the nuances of painting’s history, I recognize that it is not a shallow aestheticism, since in the background is an idealistic reconstitution of the human and the environment into the totality of a rational order – utopian and hygienic. (See Harold Rosenberg’s essay Piet Mondrian).
 Landscape conjoins to the Anthropocene. Altering the earth through industrial agriculture and fishing, mining, large-scale mineralization of the surface, chemical changes in the atmosphere and oceans, the domestication of animals, rapid population increases, and of course global climate-change, are accelerated consequences of a metaphysics played out in the re-presentations of nature.
 Isn’t it that off of the basis of presuming nature to be ‘over there’ that is can be made once over by vision machines? The gaze is a survey device: Eye/Painter/Man. First seeing territory before economy could colonize it, the Eye accelerates over the land turning it into a landscape; that is, not only turning ecology into a representational image, but thereupon a potential space of progress. Creating a simulacrum of nature, nature presented for us, the disembodied Eye that simulates nature stages its abstract power and will to accumulation, marking off ‘natural’ referents. It finds hold in a surveying metaphysics turned into a transcendent organizing agent – no longer a god, but Man: capital, the subject, the social, linguistic or economic realm with all of the natural referents, use-values and such.
 Land is a verb. It is in flux. Emerging processes are formed at the site of painting, gaining an immediacy outside the realm of what could be placed on the surface by the painter.
 I realize the catastrophic aspects of creativity where catastrophe embodies itself in every mark, instant impact, rundown, transition, erasure or collision of material embodiments.
 The K/T Boundary is a geological signature that marks the mass extinction that destroyed the majority of Mesozoic species. It refers to the point between the Cretaceous (K) and Tertiary (T) periods, dating around 65.5 million years ago.
Photo by Ravi Agarwal: http://www.raviagarwal.com/index.php
Agarwal will be speaking at DePaul on Monday, April 24th. See details in sidebars.