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Adam Cvijanovic’s Post-Natural History

There’s no such thing as nature. For some, this is a commonplace fact: there is virtually no place on earth untouched by human beings, especially if we consider the subtle, universal changes of the earth’s ecosystems caused by anthropogenic climate change. For others, this fact stirs up deep anxiety: What exactly do nature skeptics think trees and glaciers are if not natural, and if we deny the existence of nature, what are environmentalists supposed to protect? And what exactly do the deniers think we will be left when humans are long gone from this planet? I’m an environmental artist—that is, my creative practice considers questions of ecological awareness and perception—and I am frequently asked these questions during my artist talks. When this happens, I find that critical dialogue about the subtleties of humanity’s relationship to ecological systems and the planet falls apart, and conversation stalemates. Sometimes, a particularly pushy audience member will demand I take a stand: Do I think nature exists or not? Either it does or it doesn’t. Frankly, I have always found this is unproductive, yet I rarely encounter works of art or writing that are able to eloquently tackle this divisive line of questioning and initiate a genuine inquiry about the complicated relationship of the human species to that idea, thing, space, entity called "nature."

Adam Cvijanovic’s paintings do just that. They expose the elaborate artifice behind what we call "Nature" and yet they do not adopt a simple, "nothing-is-natural" stance. The paintings suggest that nature may actually in fact exist but that humanity’s access to it is filtered always by historical, perceptual, and cultural modes of understanding. Whether through advanced communications media or the seemingly isolated movement of a painting brush, anytime we reference or depict "nature," we are circling it, containing it, trying to capture it with our net of compulsive human misunderstanding.

Adam Cvijanovic Discovery of America (detail), 2012 Flash acrylic on Tyvek 15 x 65 feet Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery

 I first experienced Cvijanovic’s work during his solo exhibition at Postmasters Gallery, in Manhattan, a couple years ago. The centerpiece of the show was a sixty-five-foot Discovery of America (2012), which Cvijanovic painted on Tyvek and adhered directly to the gallery walls. The painting involved a collision of scenes; in fact, it is a collision of timescapes, on top of, running into, falling apart upon one another. Describing them here invariably means I must translate the simultaneity of the visual experience—a sort of chaos—into an orderly, linear narrative. Discovery of America is a painting within a painting, or rather a self-destructing painting within a painting. An artist has vacated her/his studio is in the process of creating a landscape painting of the western North American coast during the Pleistocene era, leaving tools and debris scattered. The pristine nature in the painting is inspired by dioramas at the Museum of Natural History: armadillos, saber-tooth tigers, mammoths, and many other prehistoric species roam mountains and plains (most of which disappeared quickly after the arrival of homo sapiens on the continent). Within the painting shop lights, 2x4s, a ladder, and a pizza delivery box are scattered about a grey floor, a floor that merged with Postmasters Gallery’s own concrete floor, melding artwork and gallery, creating a feeling of displacement—as if I couldn’t quite trust my own senses, as if any perception of nature is framed by unstable cognition. And that was not all:

Crashing into the pristine nature of Discovery of America’s Pleistocene landscape is a scene of men dashing through the plains on horses, based on a photograph of the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889. Rendered in black-and-white, the cowboys appear to be riding through an old Hollywood Western film, and they cause the canvas to shred and tear, smashing its frame into smithereens. The destroyed continuity of the painting suggests the inability to depict what exactly happened when humanity arrived in North America, or when European settlers pushed aside indigenous inhabitants—as if there were a chronological or geographical gap, a historical blindspot, or perhaps a trauma so profound it defies representation. How do we imagine what life on earth was like before the destruction wrought by our species? Or what North America was like before the arrival of European colonists and settlers? The painting’s wooden structure spills out onto the studio floor, where the artist has left quite a few empty bottles of beer. The painting shows that this rupture is momentous, cinematic, but also mundane, the aftermath of which we are all living in today, in a human-dominated planet earth. What more can we do than go have a drink?

Adam Cvijanovic White Tailed Deer, 2012 Flash acrylic on Tyvek 99 x 144 inches (8.25 x 12 ft) Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery

Cvijanovic’s paintings cite far-ranging sources of our contemporary visions of nature, including the romantic Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, the mythical fantasy of unicorns, and perhaps most relevant to our times, media culture. White Tailed Deer (2012) offers a colorful, fall-time forest with an elegant lake in the background. The trees and leaves are nearly realistic, but they contain a hint of the high-contrast colors associated with animated film and video games. Standing in the foreground and framed by bright red leaves is a truly animated character, Bambi, surrounded by his skunk and rabbit friends from the 1942 Walt Disney film. The animals have huge, wide, glowing eyes—the sort that make humans say "Ah, how cute" before bending down to pet the wild animals who, in a real forest, would have no interest in them. Although White Tailed Deer’s collision of traditional landscape painting with a film animation of wildlife is not as stark or as violent as that in Discovery of America, we are reminded of the vast distance between nature and the ways in which our culture and media shape the way we see understand this concept. How many of us have a friendly, fun Bambi (or Dumbo, Simba, Thumper, or Sebastian) lurking in our unconscious?

In Osborne Caribou (2012), a caribou stands tall and proud atop a pile of bloody, skinned carcasses. That the caribou on the ground are gutted with the clean lines of a knife indicates the work of hungers, suggesting yet another way in which humans relate to the natural world, as food to be eaten. The standing caribou looks hyperreal; the outline of his body is too vivid and smooth, as if Cvijanovic were adopting a Photoshop aesthetic in his painting. I half-expected the caribou to suddenly move, and I wonder if, even as a backpacker and an outdoorsperson, my encounters with animals have become so dominated by media representations that I actually expect animals to act like animations.

Cvijanovic titled his 2012 Postmasters show "Natural History," but his natural landscapes and diorama-type paintings are not simple riffs on the American Museum of Natural History; his work initiates an artistic meditation on the labor and subjectivity behind what we call science and nature, behind the supposed objectivity of the museum. Nature is not a perfect origin or an untouched state in Cvijanovic’s work. It loses that aura of timelessness. Instead, the viewer becomes aware of nature as an elusive quality that is always in a state of becoming and unbecoming, subject to whims, to moods, to the media we have consumed or the beers we have imbibed. Does Discovery of America really depict what the Late Pleistocene Era looked like? Does the Museum of Natural History do any better? Or are our understandings of natural history the construction of a random painter who just ate too much pizza and, exasperated with the limitations of his work, just left the building to take a break?

Icon image:
Adam Cvijanovic
Discovery of America (detail), 2012
Flash acrylic on Tyvek
15 x 65 feet
Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery

About Author

Leila Nadir is a critic, scholar, artist, and creative writer, and teaches environmental humanities courses in the Sustainability and Digital Media Studies programs at the University of Rochester. She earned her PhD in English from Columbia University in 2009 and was Andrew Mellon Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow of Environmental Humanities at Wellesley College in 2010-2011. Her scholarship has appeared in the journals Leonardo, Antennae, Cather Studies, and Utopian Studies, and her essays are published regularly in popular print and online magazines, including American Scientist, North American Review, Hyperallergic, and Rhizome.org. She is co-founder/director of the environmental media art collaborative EcoArtTech, with artist Cary Peppermint, and her creative work has been supported by the Whitney Museum of American Art, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Center for Land Use Interpretation, New York State Council on the Arts, K2 Family Foundation, and New York Foundation for the Arts.

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