by Mary Ellen Hiaus
The deliberate examination of nature’s state of over-cultivation may ultimately have an enlightening effect: through its deconstruction of the artificial, the artwork helps us come to terms with our own notions of beauty, and untimely helps us negotiate a pathway back towards the natural, towards the real.
In an era suspicious of beauty that comes too easily, artists have been toying with their viewers’ innate desire for the beautiful. Denying us any assurances of what can be embraced with impunity, some, like painters Tom Brazelton and Joan Nelson, actually deface their work, staining and scarring their landscapes; others flaunt art’s commodity status to confront us with the values we place on the objects of our desire. But photographer Ellen Brooks engages in a strategy of indulgence — at first fulfilling our inclinations, then denying them. Most of the items Brooks proffers —gardens, golf courses, exotic trees, rocks and minerals — have their origins in the natural world. But she has picked them up after they have entered our culture, via magazines and theme calendars. Unlike some of her generation, who scavenge imagery from preexisting sources primarily to erase the artist’s mark, Brooks’ source material is ultimately not just an issue of appropriation. “The issue,” she emphasizes, “is that I’m getting it right from the culture, right from the things that are so desirable to people.” Rephotographing her source pictures, then painting over them to exaggerate their appearance, then photographing them again through a dense screen, she transforms them into impossibly beautiful hybrids of artifice and nature.
Brooks’ art and her method merge a provocatively curious pair of antecedents. On the one hand, her approach recalls that of the Florentine Mannerists, in particular Pontormo, whose pursuit of his art meant he had to “superare la natura” and transform it with his own idiosyncratic passion for ornamentation and artificiality. Like him, Brooks pushes her subjects beyond nature to pursue a saturated esthetic that thrives on hyper-reality, on the Mannerists’ competition to outdo nature. On the other hand, her sensibility connects with the genre of science fiction. Just as science fiction takes as its starting point known entities, exaggerating familiar, natural phenomena to the point that they become alien, even repugnant, Brooks manipulates the viewer’s customary bearings toward and reception of the natural world. Her objects, so attractive and therefore seemingly so accessible, in fact remain elusive as the viewer struggles to retrieve their familiarity.
Brooks’ current body of intensely colored crystalline composites seems the un-likely descendant of her earliest photo-graphic works: doll tableaux she created for the late 70s until a few years ago. These narratives drew on the sources that reflect the pulse of the culture: pulp magazines, soap operas, B-movies, and cartoon books. Their generic characters, surrogates for ourselves, acted out sexual, social, and psychological conflicts, like actors in a suburban American mystery play.
If the notion of desire – sexual and consumer – so endemic to suburbia was one of many subplots, it took center stage in a window installation that Brooks created in 1985 for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Here, Brooks presented velour-lined boxes displaying backlit transparencies of a luscious cluster of pearls and a jewel-encrusted slipper, while her figures were set aside to carry on their dramas on the sidelines. These objects — tactile, inviting, but, after all, only fictive — became the focus. Like Brooks’ previous characters, these objects and their presentation were meant to incite the viewer’s participation. Whereas before we had to determine her plotlines, here we had to contend with our own associations with these objects, which continued to suggest, like the tableaux, American myths of prosperity, perfection, and possession.
Having reduced her narratives to a series of spontaneous associations spurred by loaded images, Brooks sought to further remove her objects from specificity. Around 1985 she started photographing subjects through a screen placed in front of the camera. For Brooks, the screen acts as a “leveler of the language,” a means of rendering her objects sufficiently bland so that she could proceed with her own agenda. Not surprisingly, she began to operate within established categories of art-making: portraiture, still life, and, most recently, landscape.
The first prints created with the screen were a series of “head shots.” Brooks recalls, “I didn’t want much from them; I wasn’t telling a story about them… I thought: Could I photograph the human and strip them of memory, of identification?” Portraiture has traditionally been the most revealing of art forms, presenting the outer self so vividly that it decodes the inner one. But with Brooks’ method her subjects become virtually faceless, reduced to unyielding types: the cool businessman, chic glamorous blonde with frosted lips, the matriarchal grandmother with a single strand of pearls. Yet they are utterly recognizable: they are the stock characters of advertisements, the players selected to act out our consumer desires.
While making these head pictures, Brooks started working with still lifes, intending them to be shown together as discrete components of the formal arrangements that she was composing from individual photographs. First were the sushi pictures. Just as Brooks’ screen extinguished the identities of her props/sitters, so here it deadened the exoticism of these precious things. Taken from a sushi calendar – a consumer item that, in its absurdity, is the quintessential indicator of its subject’s complete absorption by popular culture – they already represented a glut to the senses. Once strange and exotic to Western tastes, they were now cheapened, everyday. It was the perfect cultural analogy to the conceptual and visual neutralization Brooks sought with the screen.
But, as with all of Brooks’ pictures, there is an odd dialectic here between the flaunting of their banality and a certain redemption of their original mystique. In the arrangement Black Sushi (1987), for example, the over-cultivated forms of the rice and fish, stylized and effeminized in the way that poodles are shaven to look like topiaries, somehow seem mysterious, monumentalized. Composed now of particles, they have been pushed back toward their state of nature. Rendered just as disconcerting by Brooks’ treatment are her Bonsai Trees (1987). Here again their exoticism, and even the very atmosphere that surrounds them are deadened. Specimens ostracized from nature, bred solely to submit to man’s constraints, they suddenly seem to the viewer unreasonable, out of the ordinary, almost unclassifiable. They could be the minature trees found on toy train sets, or maybe some kind of eccentric brooch; they are far more slippery, and elusive, than their assigned function is intended to allow. Similarly, recent works with geodes, fabricated from a sophisticated computerized system that Brooks used in Amsterdam, transform these deracinated objects into startlingly monumental presences, as if returning them to the forces of the mountains that spawned them. Having taken as her subjects actual commodities that have entered the mainstream of consumer culture, Brooks has recently taken a more aggressive stance: she has ventured into the landscape itself to retrieve fragments that stand on the cusp of nature and culture – and nudges them over it. “I take a very cynical view of how nature is presented in the culture… I am interested in how nature is bought and sold,” she says. The first foray in pursuit of that notion, a series last year called Garden Slices, involved photographing pictures of elegant gardens from upscale magazines and turning them into seemingly synthetic masses of digitalized, heightened colors. Intended in their original state to arouse admiration, if not envy, these pictures now seem oddly repugnant, unfamiliar. Brooks has carried this concept even further with a recent series of golf course pictures. If the golf course has an iconography, it is one of control and tranquility on the one hand; maleness on the other. Methodical in its procedure, utterly precise in its motions, the ritual’s setting is one of order, too: nature groomed and regulated, but to a point that is just this side of artificial, like the English versus the French style of garden. Brooks’ treatment, though, transforms the golf course into a disorienting, otherworldly topiary. Sky and earth, now nearly liquid, have become shifting, granular swells. There is a palpable tension between the flat, all-over rendering of the course and the grainy surface that agitates it. Like the bonsai and the sushi pictures, the imagery has become uncustomarily elusive. We become mesmerized by the flux of the greenery; it is no longer passive and yielding but active, even aggressive.
But the most challenging subject, Brooks says, has been her recent work with waterfalls, because of the waterfall’s formidable romantic iconography. In a sense, in taking on such an untamed subject, with its connotations of the sublime, Brooks is taking a more active role in the transformation from nature to culture than she did with the bonsais or sushi or even the gardens and golf courses. It is a thing that is not yet associated with domestication. To accommodate the heritage of the image, Brooks turned to artificial waterfalls, which play into her purposes beautifully: they exemplify the idea of possessing water, of bringing it indoors to be surrounded by carpeting and artificial plants and track lighting in order to construct a somewhat pathetic fantasy of being in the natural world, like some kind of packaged sublime. Oddly, for all Brooks’ self-professed cynicism, her golf courses and waterfalls and bonsais have become things of lasting, if insincere, beauty. And the deliberate examination of nature’s state of over-cultivation may ultimately have an enlightening effect: through its deconstruction of the artificial, her work helps us come to terms with our own notions of beauty, and ultimately helps us negotiate a pathway back toward the natural, toward the real.