Throughout art history, landscape as a genre has most often been depicted as serene natural spaces, unspoiled by human hands. Our contemporary American landscape, however, is a space of contention, struggle, surveillance, and atrophy. “New Typologies,” a new exhibition at UArts’ Philadelphia Art Alliance, explores some of the ways artists are wrestling with these ideas.
I saw “New Typologies” on an unseasonably warm fall day, a reminder of the precariousness of so many of the landscapes we inhabit. Juxtaposed against the Arts Alliance building’s Italian Renaissance Revival neoclassicism, the artworks push and pull as they resist and play upon classical notions of landscape.
The show’s most obvious nod to classical landscape comes from the copper etchings of James Hoff, several of which depict the idyllic upstate New York forests. These serene forest scenes are etched on copper in a process that mimics the manufacturing of computer circuit boards. Some of the trees are cloaked in what appears to be mist but is smoke from forest fires in Yosemite National Park, drawing parallels between environmental devastation and the tech industry.
“My primary interest is in contemporary (and changing) notions of landscapes and how those intersect with technology and larger political issues, histories, or language,” Hoff said. “Contemporary information technology and computing conditions humans as economic and political subjects. By hacking some of the conditions of these technologies, I’m trying to open up new, if small, conceptual spaces, from which to create new work critiquing the conditions of our technological consumption as well as utilizing this technology to examine larger political and social structures.”
Other works in the show take a different kind of landscape as inspiration. Kahlil Robert Irving’s work cites the urban landscape as a source of inspiration, building on an almost archaeological surface excavation of found objects which become models for his ceramic works. This is mirrored in his digital excavations of tweets, memes, and headlines — a chorus of Black digital voices that the artist forms into collages.
The floor of the second room at the Art Alliance is blanketed with Irving’s digitally-printed jacquard weavings of asphalt, GROUND FOR MY FATHERS AND HIS FATHERS AND HIS FATHERS AND HIS FATHERS, which is contrasted by a series of prints of a bright, cerulean blue sky dotted with clouds, leaning high atop a shelf.
Also addressing the urban landscape is David Hartt’s On Exactitude in Science. Here, the artist interviews filmmaker Charles Burnett, best known for his 1978 film Killer of Sheep, set in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood, a longtime African American neighborhood that has slowly become home to more LatinX families over the past few decades. Hartt films Burnett verbally mapping out the old neighborhood as the camera fidgets, pans, focuses, and otherwise draws attention to itself and the form of documentation.
“[The concept of] landscape came about through the work that they were doing but also [through] content from events exacerbated during COVID and George Floyd’s murder,” noted curator Sid Sachs. “It isn’t a concept of traditional visual landscape but one of a social landscape. And it was heavily influenced by Black cultural material.”
Up the Art Alliance’s imperial staircase, Hoff’s video piece, HOBO UFO (v. The New World) made in collaboration with DeForrest Brown Jr., documents the social upheaval surrounding police killings of Black people in the U.S. The work utilizes hacked data from Google Street View as a vehicle to visit multiple sites of uprisings, protests, and acts of civil disobedience. Operating at a frenetic pace, the piece gives a frightening urgency to the geography it depicts.
Across the hall is David Hartt’s video Et in Arcadia Ego. It was filmed at modernist architect Philip Johnson’s famed Glass House, a structure comprised of four glass walls fused together by steel beams. In addition to being a paradigm-shifting architect, Johnson was a Nazi sympathizer, an antisemite, a believer in eugenics, and a supporter of fascist American politicians in the 1930s.
In a production slick and sunny enough to evoke comparisons to commercial advertisement, the video revels in the site’s formal beauty in lingering shots alongside a soothing score. It populates the Glass House with a Black composer, played by Tomeka Reid, who is shown leisurely drinking tea, lounging, and recording music in futuristic mirrored garb. A CGI-animated Black giant wearing a gold toga appears and disappears, happily roaming the grounds and taking cues from a painting of the giant Orion by Poussin, which Johnson owned. Et in Arcadia Ego takes a remarkably passive solution to Johnson’s abhorrent politics and instead shows the pastoral beauty of his creation.
In a time when fascism and authoritarianism are on the rise, when antisemitism is mainstream, and when anti-Blackness is rampant, can one wish away these issues to a distant past or press beyond them to a utopic future? Is a Black figure embodying a contentious space enough to redress the politics of white supremacy and hate — or is that representation negated when it is used in service of beautifying and rectifying a deeply marred legacy?
The landscapes that occupy “New Typologies” are heavily mediated, glitched, repurposed, witnessed through the lens of technology, social media, and image sharing. They show different avenues of our relationships to nature, the environment, and each other. With our natural landscape under imminent threat and our political landscape in turmoil, much of our daily routines are bound up in destructive, repressive systems beyond our control.
The landscape itself is under erasure, constantly changing, and meaning something different to each of us. Perhaps we are all living in our own glass houses, rife with hypocrisy and contradiction, but holding on to hope for a better future.
“New Typologies” runs through Dec. 15 at UArt’s Art Alliance. Admission is free. For details, visit: https://www.uarts.edu/gallery/new-typologies-david-hartt-james-hoff-and-kahlil-robert-irving.