Ellen Brooks: Nature as Artifice

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by David S. Rubin

It was customary, approximately one hundred years ago, for an artist inspired by Mother Nature to get as close to her as possible before rendering her official portrait. Whether romanticized as the mysterious and powerful destination of a spiritual quest (Church, Inness, or Ryder) or humanized as the complacent nesting place for a Sunday outing (Monet, Seurat), nature was viewed as something regal, if not divine. An artist seeking to understand nature would journey through the “great outdoors” before retreating to the studio to assemble one’s findings or paint directly on site, in an attempt to record the immediacy of a fresh encounter.

Today, by contrast, nature has taken a more subordinate role in most people’s lives, as she has become subservient to the media-saturated environment of the Age of Technology. In a world that turns on and off to the tune of VCRs and computers and is conditioned by the ups and downs of explosive consumerism, nature has become just another visual “sound bite”. Significantly, in fact, Mother Nature has become shielded by communications vehicles that make a direct experience with her a rare and infrequent privilege. Why bother to venture into a real forest, when so many surrogates are at our disposal? In contemporary culture, nature substitutes abound in picture books, magazines, television, and movies. In addition, a new kind of nature, largely a product of our century and particularly of the post-World War II era, has graced the planet in the form of carefully orchestrated suburban gardens, interior landscapes, golf courses, and the like. Alexander Wilson makes reference to this phenomenon in his book The Nature of Culture:

As new transportation and communications technologies penetrated the natural world in the 1950s people began to experience nature as something manipulated, altered, composed by humans. As primitive landscapes have vanished from the planet, we’ve surrounded ourselves with our own replications of them. Plants now proliferate in places they haven’t been seen in decades, if ever: bars, office, bank-tower lobbies, and restaurants.

As an artist whose work has always addressed various forms of cultural disengagement, Ellen Brooks speaks articulately about nature as artifice, as she has devoted the past six years to critical investigation of the paradox existent in society’s ongoing preoccupation with secondary nature. As reflected in the preponderance of such cultural fabrications as indoor waterfalls, formal gardens, still life arrangements, bonsai trees, golf courses, and fish tanks, it is evident to Brooks that there is a demonstrated need or longing among us to be close to nature. Where the enigma and, perhaps, the tragedy exist for Brooks is in the realization that we are quick to accept manufactured constructs that are “controlled, artificiated, and consumerized.”

The superficiality of nature as we now know her has provided the impetus for Brooks’s recent photographic constructions. Not only is this reflected in appearances, in that the mode of representation in the work neatly duplicates formal aspects of artificial nature, but it is also a factor with respect to process. Since 1986, when Brooks began employing a studio methodology that involves photographing and re-photographing found images from books and magazines through a screen, she has conceptually imitated the very transgression that she critiques. Taking us further and further from their points of origin in the natural world, Brooks reveals to us slices of manufactured nature that are visually enticing, but which, through their remoteness from their source and deliberately contrived structure, beg us to question the degree to which we have become desensitized or ambivalent towards pure communion with the great outdoors.

Brooks is herself a product of the media-conditioned baby-boom generation. Born in Los Angeles in 1946, Brooks grew up in Southern California, where her primary experience with “wildlife” was with a garden relegated to the back yard. A self-proclaimed “magazine junkie” as a child, she adored magazines, photo albums, and television. Her primary cultural influences were, in fact, those that she now considers examples of “shallow opulence… In media portrayal,” Brooks recently commented, “emphasis is on display and dressing up nature, on pretense.”

Throughout the twenty years that Brooks has been a practicing artist, she has observed, analyzed, and evaluated cultural values by moving alternately between an investigation of the complexities of human relationships and the effects of human intervention upon the natural world. Her interest in examining these aspects of culture was triggered, in part, by a personal response to nature. In the late 1960s, while Brooks was an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, she started photographing outdoors. Disliking the experience of being outside with a camera, she retreated to her apartment and began photographing constructed set-ups of objects. Early on, Brooks was questioning the role of photography itself Among the issues that were foremost in her thoughts were questions about the placement, context, and veracity of the photograph. Distrustful of its authority, she embarked on a series of projects through which she challenged conventional modes of “reading” a photograph by offering new, viable alternatives in the forms of photo-sculptures and installations.

For her 1970 MA exhibition, Brooks created an artificial environment consisting of 12’ x 12’ Astroturf, lawn furniture, and sculptural nude figures that were made by printing photographs on photographic linen that she then shaped over armatures. In order to create a sense of unease, Brooks exhibited the bodies on chaise lounges and lawn chairs, in casual seated or reclining poses. Upon seeing the figures almost unexpectedly while walking through the space, a viewer might feel like an intruder. Exhibited during the height of the Photorealist period in contemporary art, when artists such as John de Andrea pushed trompel’oeil to a new extreme with sculptures of nude females made of polyester resin that looked like actual flesh, Brooks’s installation confronted viewers with the voyeuristic dilemma of simultaneously wanting to look and not to look at seemingly real naked people.

In a subsequent installation, made for her 1971 MFA exhibition, Brooks constructed a site-specific outdoor tableau on Venice Beach. In this work, which was motivated by the Vietnam War, Brooks embedded fourteen photo-sculptures of body parts in the sand. Each photo-sculpture, which depicted either a lifesize nude figure or a fragment of one, had been made by printing on photographic linen that was then stretched over plywood and polyurethane armatures. Strewn all over and rising out of the sand, the scattered body fragments alluded to the cultural disenfranchisement of the generation that opposed the war. In addition, they broke traditional boundaries of photography, in terms of size and scale, amount of space occupied, and relationship with the viewer.

Brooks’s first photo-installations were created during the peak years of the sexual revolution. Her concern with the body, in fact, reflected a growing interest in cultural attitudes towards human sexuality. In 1973, Brooks began an ambitious project that took approximately three years to complete. Combining her fascination with how we read photographic information with questions about sexual identity, she began work on a piece about adolescence, a highly charged subject because it is a period of change and transition, “a time of being on the cusp, a moment of potential discomfort.”

When Brooks initially conceived this project, she intended to continue making sculptural figures by printing photographic images on shaped photosensitive canvas As she began working with this idea, however, and placed printed photographs of naked adolescents vertically on the wall, she realized that their presence was overpowering. Because they were one-and-one-half times lifesize, the photographs on photographic linen seemed “more sculptural, more iconic” than any figure that was literally three-dimensional. They revealed a classical purity that reminded Brooks of the kouros figures which she had seen on a visit to Greece when she was a teenager.

From the start, Untitled (Adolescence) (1976) was intended to be confrontational. According to Brooks, “I wanted it … to actively engage the viewer with memories of vulnerability and separateness… It was confrontational in terms of the viewer’s relationship to his or her own sexuality, expectations of sexual roles, one’s understanding of the body, the idea of the photograph being a continual recreation of what we think of as truth.” In spite of these intentions, the work ended up inviting controversy of a sort that, ironically, foreshadowed 1990s tendencies towards cultural censorship. Exhibited from 1976–79 in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the installation raised a variety of reactions, ranging from an attack by critic Hal Fischer, who charged that the work was exploitive, to a more sympathetic assessment by Charles Shere that these were “dignified, assured” figures whose “strength derives from the absolute unquestioning honesty with which they face the camera and the viewers.” Brooks had been very careful in her selecting of models, all of whom were paid and had complete knowledge of how the photographs would be displayed In addition, each had agreed to participate of his or he own will, and had parental consent to do so.

Wishing to avoid any major stumbling blocks that might be generated by controversy, and still thinking about scale issues, Brooks next shifted her focus from real-life models to surrogates. Around 1977–78, she started using a Polaroid camera and began photographing toy figures and other small objects. Expanding upon her earlier installations, Brooks continued to question the veracity of photographic information. This time her procedure was to construct and photograph tiny domestic scenes, using anatomically correct rubber figures from a European toy set, dollhouse furniture, and so forth. The rubber figures were particularly advantageous in developing the scenarios because they were available in different ages, they had moving limbs, and their facial expressions could be altered.

In photographic tableaux such as Untitled (1978) and Untitled (1979), Brooks investigated some of the predicaments and anxieties associated with gender dilemmas and female/male relationship In the former, a clothed couple watches, alarmed, while a naked couple copulates on a bed before them. The room is in disarray, as the roof has caved in and a “house of cards” has collapsed on the table. In the latter, two figures seated on a bed are not relating. The woman looks at a book, while the man stares at a calendar. Using setting, symbolic objects, poses, gestures, and expressions to suggest narrative, much in the manner of the Flemish masters, Brooks created disturbing psychodramas about gender struggles and alienation. Brooks acknowledges that these works were influenced to some degree by growing up with TV, watching the Soaps, and reading romance comics and true confessionals.”

As Brooks’s work progressed, feminist issues took center stage and, from 1979–82, she simplified her compositions by organizing the photographs in diptych and triptych formats and heightening attention given to an individual objector action. In Untitled (Silk Hat) (1982), a central image of a top hat, representing male dominance, is flanked by scenes of a woman singing and twirling umbrellas before a seated man.

The woman is shown as a performer has traditionally stereotyped women as having to perform for and be judged by men. In Untitled (Glass Shoe) (1982) Brooks culled images from “myth and media” to challenge other conventional female stereotypes. In this work, a central jeweled slipper, referring to the tale of Cinderella, is lodged between two panels depicting scenes from the 1950s television program Queen for a Day. This juxtaposition of fantasy portrayals calls attention to society’s tendency to romanticize or rationalize reality through escapist devices such as impractical dreams or television. In addition, the emphasis in these works on fancy articles of clothing (the top hat and the shoe) alludes to the roles of pretense, fashion, and facades in the development of human relationships and, especially, in power plays between men and women.

After moving to New York in 1982 and exhibiting her photographic tableaux at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Brooks began thinking about eliminating elements of specificity from her work. Seeking to create images that would isolate the more generic aspects of male/female power struggles, she decided to reduce her palette by stripping away color and restrict her vocabulary of props per panel. In black-and-white works such as Untitled (Gatharing) (1984) and Untitled (Whisperers) (1984) the toy figures of the previous tableaux are shown before flat abstract fields, which have replaced any references to setting In contrast to the earlier diptychs and triptychs, the relationship among panels is less obvious, so the viewer must deduce meaning through a process of slow reflection. In Untitled (Gathering), the male figure at the right exercises patriarchal control over the family at the far left, as conveyed by his dominant stance and outstretched arm. The dining table in the central panel (as well as his business suit attire) alludes to the economic status of “breadwinner” from which the traditional “head of the house” derived his power. In Untitled (Whisperers), the relationship among the figures is ambiguous and generalized. What we find in this work is a contrast between engagement and estrangement. The closeness of the facing figures in the left panel is reinforced by the abstract wood-grain pattern behind them, which propels them together. By comparison, the woman at the right is lost in thought and welded by a pattern of harsh horizontal lines to a completely different space.

In 1985, Brooks was invited to create a site-specific installation for the window of The New Museum of Contemporary Art. Using this opportunity to translate the concerns of her diptychs and triptychs into an installation format, Brooks brought the work of the previous seven years to a dramatic conclusion, while also paving the way for a new direction.

In the process of generalizing her content, Brooks had developed a lexicon of loaded iconic imagery. Having shed most of their narrative associations, figures and objects functioned instead as metaphors about relationships and power. For the New Museum window, which would be visible at night, Brooks conceived the idea of displaying photographic transparencies of emblematically potent objects over light boxes. In the lower left-hand section of the window, the artist constructed a triptych showing a disjointed open hand flanked by sculptural figures of a running man and a woman surrounded by a hoop. With the hand signifying both our desires and a plea to resist them, the man is portrayed as the suitor, free to chase or flee from the entrapped woman, who is confined by a circle. Monumentalized in the right-hand section are images about status. A fish trophy connotes male conquest, while a cluster of pearls and the glass shoe from the earlier triptych act as straightforward references to female customs used to please and appease men. Towering above all these emblems, in the upper section, is a transparency of a nineteenth-century bronze sculpture of a figure throwing a brick. The implied energy of the brick crashing through the window onto the street warns that a culture dominated by desire and consumption may be on the verge of disaster.

In joining together backlit transparencies, distinguished by glistening surfaces and dramatic use of light, Brooks created a grand but cynical spectacle about a culture out of balance. Ironically, by compartmentalizing the images into boxed areas according to the design principles of advertising, she had effectively critiqued mass-media culture by using its own time-specific language. In a culture that communicates daily through 30-second sound bites and quick visual blips, spread across the pages of magazines. billboards, and TV screens in millions of homes, information has become streamlined, reduced to emblems, abbreviations, and catch phrases.

While working on the New Museum window, Brooks made a series of small relief sculptures that were about human relationships. Troubled by the realization that the language of the media had contributed to the depersonalization of society, Brooks considered photographing real people in a manner that would reflect this disheartening aspect of the human condition. Seeking to “take a person’s photograph and strip it down to its essentials,” Brooks began photographing subjects in her studio and then re-photographing them through a screen that she discovered in a catalogue for scenic backdrops. This screen, which the artist refers to as a “leveler of the language,” had the effect of generalizing the subjects, without blurring or obscuring their identities. In Untitled (Column) (1986-87), a vertical arrangement of six heads raises numerous questions about appearances and facades. Motivated by both the publicity “head shot,” used by entertainers and other professionals to glamorize and promote themselves, and the “studio portrait” that commemorates graduations, weddings, and the like, these images are deliberately distanced from the “real world” by the “atomized” surface in which each is sheathed. Much like “Stepford Wives,” the figures have become generic types, deprived of their freedom to be different. As the media saturates us with stereotypes dictated by fashion and trends, is it not just that which we are encouraged to sacrifice?

As Brooks became increasingly interested in the role of images of desire in the depersonalization of our culture, she began pouring through newspapers, magazines, calendars, and books, looking for other appropriate subjects. Thinking about “how people read, adore, and desire those representations,” Brooks expanded her vocabulary to include, first, still life objects and, subsequently, an array of examples of nature as artrfice.

In Red Container (1986–87), a photographic construction made by joining together four still life pictures from popular culture sources with a fashionable female head shot from a newspaper, Brooks uses the color red to reinforce and heighten the seductive quality already present in these images. In that they are displayed before monochromatic red color fields, enclosed within red borders, zoned within the screen-produced sparkle of an allover glittering surface, and accompanied by an abstract red panel, they are as beautiful to behold as they are manufactured, artificial, and contrived, Hence, they are about paradox involved in yearning, as evidenced in our preference for artificial fictions over real-world truths. As Brooks explains, “My issues are about how we read the photograph, how we dream and desire what is pictured, how we are losing ourselves in this glut of images. We absorb the culture through pictures and become that which is pictured.”

Throughout 1987, Brooks examined with microscopic intensity a number of cultural icons with common inks to the natural environment. Enclosed by circular lacquer frames, the birds and flowers in Blue Circle (1987) seem listless and stiff, as if they are specimens or remnants from some strange, unnatural universe. Similarly, the rocks and minerals in Table Racks (1987) are presented as museum relics, several times removed from the living world that they once inhabited. As objects on tables, they are premium examples of nature at her domesticated finest. The shifting planes of the tilting tabletops suggest here an instability. As in the New Museum window, the imagery calls attention to a civilization that has lost its sense of balance.

Perhaps the most peculiar and overt example of manicured nature in Brooks’s repertoire is the bonsai tree, as its shape is controlled by repeated cutting of its roots and perpetual pruning and shaping. First seen in the uppermost panel of Red Container, the bonsai tree provided the impetus for Daylight Trees (1987) and Sunset Trees (1987). Although the atomized surfaces in these works might at first provoke associations with Pointillism or Impressionism, any such connections with contemplative landscape are quickly repelled by the disturbing harsh light that turns these tightly enclosed spaces into claustrophobic arenas for holocaust or environmental decay. With little room to breathe, the trees appear to be losing a battle for survival.

In photographing the bonsai trees, Brooks had essentially effected a move from still life to landscape. Although the trees themselves often function within the context of the former genre, in that they are commonly isolated in an indoor setting, the artist’s treatment of them reminds us of their origins in the outdoors. By replacing the abstract color fields of Red Container or Blue Circle with palettes of gray and gold, Brooks now called attention to properties of the environment such as sky, atmosphere, and light. Appropriatly, she began looking at pictures of controlled, broad outdoor landscapes, such as formal gardens and golf courses. Continuing her process of working with the screen, she photographed sections of representations from books, magazines, and calendars and obliterated some of the details with paint or crayon before rephotographing them. In works such as Garden Slice (1987) and Course (1989), fragments of nature have become static and abstract. Shown truncated and at close range, much as they are presented in movies and television, these are hardly the inviting vistas that dominated landscape art in the nineteenth century. Rather, these are impenetrable spaces, barricaded by gloomy screen-speckled surfaces and trapped by the tight enclosure of dark frames.

Continuing her investigation of artificial environments, Brooks next pondered the degree to which we have tamed nature through the creation of domesticated, miniaturized versions of phenomena that originate wild and free, such as waterfalls or oceans. In Falls (1989), an indoor waterfall from an atrium lacks any of the spontaneous fluidity that one would expect from falling water. Frozen like an icicle, the stark white clump appears halted in midstream. Similarly, there are no signs of life in Tank (1989), where fish are strangely absent. This is because the aquatic landscape here is actually a fake photographic backdrop that was made solely for the purpose of being inserted into a fish tank. For whom is this habitat intended? Are we fooling the fish?

As questions surfaced in Brooks’s work about the relationship between domesticated environments and those who use and derive pleasure from them, the artist observed that foremost among the more extravagant examples of staging for the sake of showing off are night-lit homes and gardens. For a series of night scenes from 1990, Brooks photographed details from magazines and books on lighting and landscaping. In Front Entry (1990) any sense of spatial perspective has been lost to the confusion of dissonant patterns of stark glaring lights juxtaposed with sooty, blackened foliage and ground. In exaggerating the abstract patterns already existent in the setting. Brooks brings out an unsettling tone, contradictory of the notion that the lights within the house should connote warmth and comfort. On the contrary, what happens inside the home has become secondary to the extraordinary spectacle around it. According to Brooks, in these night scenes “nature is not at rest. She is lit up constantly. Emphasis is…on the perpetual quality that the lights never go out.”

In the summer of 1991, Brooks was watching television footage of the Gulf War, which included a July Fourth simulation of Scud missiles. Still thinking about the metaphoric implications of nightlit skies, she was reminded of the Challenger disaster. At once mystified and terrified by the parallels between fireworks, a controlled spectacle of light, and the violence transmitted across TV screens nightly, she began photographing such images. In Works (1991), Brooks has transformed the light patterns into amorphous globules that trigger a number of associations, ranging from explosions to dangerous microorganisms. The threatening tenor of these works is reinforced by an acidic palette of purples and grays. Concurrent with Works, Brooks also photographed images of light beams, as she views both as ultimate departures from nature and symptoms of serious cultural demise. Brooks has commented, “I see the light beams and the fireworks as evil, anti-nature crowd-control devices, a general leveling, a diversion of energy — the spectacle as empty theater.”

Barrenness, desolation, isolation – Brooks asks us in her recent work, if these are all that remain. Have we replaced nature’s treasures with so many artifices that we are prisoners in our own manufactured palace? Compelled to explore these questions on a human scale, Brooks returned, in 1992, to an installation format. Upon entering Installation (Beams and Bodies) (1990-92), viewers find themselves enclosed within a confrontational environment, composed from over-lifesize images of naked bodies, suspended in stiff poses and positioned upside down. On an adjacent or opposite wall (placement is variable), Brooks has installed a monumental computer-printed photograph of light beams. The bodies, which originated in an artist’s posing manual, are devoid of any of the vitality exhibited by the adolescents of the earlier installation, who were filled with the anticipation of growing into adulthood. By contrast, the new figures are shown frozen and corpse-like, as they represent the failures of a culture that has become scorched by such tragedies as a weakened environment and the catastrophe of AIDS. Brooks explains:

The current work, diffused through the screen and emanating from the primary issues of artifice and desire investigated previously, addresses the demise of the body at a time when it should be experiencing life. The figures in suspension are dissolving and disappearing, dematerializing into the molecular —powerless in the face of premature death. Light beams cross an empty stage, the drama enacted being one of artificial spirit. The grand spectacle is mechanized and false, the generalizing effect of the screen here suggesting a claustrophobia, non-breathing — that there is no space. Image and environment are compressed onto the surface with no sense of depth, no place to go.

Throughout the ages, art has had the capacity to effect change. As artists continue to use their creative energies to respond to the challenges of a particular place or time, or to explore broader universal issues, viewers have the option to remain passive or to react. At a time when Brooks involves us dramatically with one of the most significant issues that we face as we prepare to enter a new century, it is reassuring to note that some positive action is already underway. According to Alexander Wilson, “As landscaping ideas have been reinterpreted and reversed, the boundaries of the garden have become less distinct. Much recent work attempts to reintegrate country and city, suggesting that what was once nature at home may soon become nature as home.” An example of this type of thinking maybe found in the work of architect and urban planner Steven Holl, who has proposed developing sections along the edges of cities into transitional points between urban and rural areas. Holl believes that visions of a city’s future can be plotted on this partially spoiled and, liberating the remaining natural landscape, protecting the habitat of hundreds of species of animals and plants that are threatened with extinction.” In spite of some contructive progress, however, Wilson shares Brooks’s recognition that the problems are vast and that pressing choices remain before us. As viewers stand within the empty arena of Brooks’s installation, they might do well to reflect upon the imperative with which Wilson concludes The Nature of Culture:

We now need a larger perspective. We need to gain a sense of how our constructed environment connects to the natural one surrounding it, and to its history. Only then can we be mobilized to restore nature and assure it, and ourseleves, a future.