Landscapes after Ruskin

Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime presents in its introductory text an intriguing proposition: “In a world overwhelmed by rapid technological advances, natural disasters, and a heightened sense of anxiety, it is still possible to find unexpected beauty.” Curated by New York photographer Joel Sternfeld and drawing on works from the Hall Art Foundation in Vermont, the exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery takes as its starting point the concept of the sublime in nature popular in the 19th century.

Monet’s paintings of wealthy Parisians frolicking in the French suburb of Argenteuil became interesting to me as something more than very pretty objects when I learned about their ideological underpinnings—how Monet carefully excised the visible effects of rapid industrialization from his compositions, presenting his own version of the kind of idyllic landscape that no longer existed. Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime, the current exhibition at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, pulls a similar trick by reminding us that while depicting landscapes may seem straightforward, event quaint at times, they are subject to the same manipulation and subjectivity as any kind of art, even if they’re painted en plein air. 

Artwork Spotlight: Ai Weiwei’s “Oil Spills”

May 21, 2018 by Mengyue Wu Upon entering the Grey Art Gallery, visitors encounter what look like giant puddles of crude oil pooling on the wooden floor. Occasionally stepped upon by visitors who neglect to look down, the shiny black “oil” is actually a porcelain installation, Oil Spills (2006), by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. […]

When 19th-century painters such as JMW Turner wanted to grapple with the sublime — which they did with obsessive regularity — they turned to nature’s terrors. Art offered Alpine storms, raging whitecaps, floods and earthquakes, all of which viewers could observe in the comfort of the gallery. Just as horror films stoke fear and also provide solace (that can’t happen to me!), the artistic sublime provoked a frisson of vicarious suffering.

The Victorian-era art critic and social activist John Ruskin argued that an artist's principal goal should be "truth to nature" - that all great art should depict the natural world as humanity experiences it. He believed that landscapes should capture not only the beauty of nature but also its threat and terror in order to render an authentic representation of the sublime, evoking feelings of awe and human insignificance. And by speaking out against industrial pollution in the 19th century, Ruskin effectively became one of Europe's first environmentalists.

Opening: “Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime” at Grey Art Gallery Bringing together paintings, sculptures, videos, and photographs by more than 50 artists, this exhibition focuses on contemporary representations of the environment. The show will explore the ways in which industrialization and climate change have influenced the way we depict landscapes today, all the while considering art critic and social thinker John Ruskin’s belief that artists ought to depict nature honestly. “Landscapes After Ruskin” promises a modern take on the 19th-century idea of the sublime, in which nature is beautiful and terrifying simultaneously, and the show—which features work by Richard Artschwager, Katherine Bradford, and Ai Weiwei, among many others—will examine distinctly modern anxieties and joys regarding the state of the natural world today.