Q&A with SVA’s Mark Tribe on His ‘Plein Air’ Exhibition at the Corcoran

July 18, 2014

SVA’s MFA Fine Arts Chair Mark Tribe presents new work in a solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. SVA Close Up caught up with Tribe to discuss Plein Air, which is on view through late September and marks his first major solo museum exhibition.

plein1425When the Corcoran commissioned this work, were there any parameters? Did you have an idea of what you wanted the exhibition to be from the beginning?

The Corcoran’s chief curator, Philip Brookman, contacted me because he saw a connection between my previous landscape work and the Corcoran’s collection of Hudson River School and western landscape paintings. We walked the galleries when the museum was closed, and also looked at the racks of paintings in storage. That was a remarkable experience for me. The Corcoran’s collection of American landscape paintings is hung salon style—in a loose grid that uses the entire height of the gallery walls, as it might have been in the 19th century—so spending time there gave me a sense of what the paintings were like as objects. A reproduction on a web page or in a book can tell you a lot about a painting as an image, but the materiality of the work—for example, how big it feels compared to one’s own body and its surroundings, or how the surface reflects light from different angles—can only be appreciated in person.

Philip explained to me that many of the paintings in the collection were purchased by the museum’s founder, William Wilson Corcoran, a banker who financed Morse’s invention of the telegraph, the Mexican-American War, the purchase of Alaska and Robert Peary’s first expedition to the North Pole. In other words, the history of these paintings as objects that have been acquired, preserved and exhibited (just steps from the White House), is intimately connected to our national history of territorial expansion and conquest. These lovely paintings, many of them quite small and unpretentious, were also somehow tokens of manifest destiny.

So I decided to create a new body of work in response to the collection.

plein2425Landscape played a significant role in your projects Rare Earth and Posse Comitatus. The title of your exhibition, Plein Air, is a French expression that refers to painting outdoors. How are these recent investigations situated in relation to a long history of the landscape as artistic form via painting and photography?

I titled the show Plein Air partly as a nod to the history of painting outdoors, which implies painting from life, depicting observed reality, but also to suggest a link between landscape painting and aerial landscape photography, a practice that is almost as old as photography itself, and has been used more for military surveillance, mapping and real estate than for artistic expression.

The aerial views depicted in Plein Air suggest a tension between peace and leisure, referencing, say, the flight of a bird or a panoramic view on a postcard, and the threat of violence, via a “drone’s eye view” or military spatial analysis. Can you speak to this tension?

I would say it’s a tension between land as nature that has not yet been spoiled by human activity and land as territory that might conceal an enemy. The first perspective is maybe the flip side of the way I imagine 19th century American landscape painters like Asher B. Durand and John Frederick Kensett saw nature: as untapped bounty and reverential inspiration. To some extent, I envy their apparent innocence, but we are now on the other side of a historical divide. On both sides of this divide—the divide of the industrial revolution and the rise of ecological consciousness—nature is fundamentally a good thing, even an object of desire.

From the second perspective, the viewpoint of military surveillance, nature is simply terrain to be mapped, watched and controlled. If the first view is aesthetic, the second is tactical. There’s also a tension between human vision, the embodied eye of the painter or photographer, and machine vision. The drone is a kind of long-distance prosthesis, a remote-control eye. It’s the eye of an almost-all-seeing intelligence, a networked cybernetic hybrid mind.

plein3425On the tail of Rare Earth, which depicted landscapes found in combat video games along with video footage of a militia training ground, the views in Plein Air might be read in reference to undisturbed land as potential combat zone. Is there an implicit critique of militarization or imperialism in this work?

Yes, but I want to be careful not to overstate the critique. Personally, I am appalled by the obscene investments governments make in weaponry and by the ways weapons are used, at great cost, to project and defend economic and political power. But the pictures I’m showing at the Corcoran don’t make direct reference to military drones or combat simulations, and they are surprisingly painterly. So it’s a stealth critique. It comes in under the radar. I’m critical of militarism, but I’m also fascinated by its aesthetic side-effects.

You’ve utilized geospatial simulation technologies to create the digital images on view. Does this project suggest an antagonism in the relationship between nature and technology? Between reality and representation?

It’s less an antagonism than a blurring at the boundaries. Nature and technology, like reality and representation, were binary opposites in Modern thought, but they are no longer distinct (at least not in my mind). We now understand that technology is itself an epiphenomenon of evolution, and we are using technology (from antibiotics to genetic engineering) to alter the course of evolution. In this sense, technology is perfectly natural, and to imagine otherwise is pure nostalgia. We also understand, or think we understand, that there is no Platonic reality out there casting the shadows we see on the wall of the cave. Reality is a representation.

plein4425On a different note, how was your first year as SVA’s chair of MFA Fine Arts? Can we expect any new developments or changes to the curriculum in the coming year?

My first year as chair has been amazingly great. The MFA Fine Arts faculty and students are wonderful to work with, and the whole school is run with integrity and efficiency. Things can happen quickly at SVA because we have less bureaucracy than other academic institutions. Academic politics is simply not an issue here, so we are able to innovate and respond to student’s needs in a way that I haven’t seen elsewhere. One of the most exciting changes for MFA Fine Arts is that we’re bringing on a number of new faculty, including A.K. Burns, Media Farzin, Rico Gatson, Leigh Ledare, Eva and Franco Mattes, Wangechi Mutu, Angel Nevarez, Gary Simmons, Mickalene Thomas and Paul Pfeiffer. More developments, including significant changes to the curriculum, are in the works.

Images from top down: 4406-4812, UV print on Dibond, 108 x 96”; 3913, UV print on Dibond, 62 x 94”; 3747-3780, UV print on Dibond, 60 x 90”; and 9805-9906, UV print on Dibond, 57 x 98”. All images courtesy of the artist.


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