More Horizons: Looking Back at Earthworks 48 Years Later

If you row far enough on Lake Cayuga, past Taughannock Falls State Park, you’ll see a tall white structure emitting a white smoke into the sky that is the spitting image of a lit cigarette.

It would be self-serving to suggest the smokestack is political statement, naïve to suggest it is an art installation, and misinformed to suggest it is the remainder of the famous 1969 Earthworks exhibition in Ithaca, New York.

Artists from the 1969 Earthworks exhibition at Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art in Ithaca, NY

Artists from the 1969 Earthworks exhibition at Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art in Ithaca, NY

But, whether pressured by Ithaca, New York’s historical fraternity with environmentally conscious art or the nearing 48th anniversary of the earthworks exhibition held by Cornell University, I cannot help but read into the smokestack. 

The connection between the smokestack, pollution, and landscape, puts up a strong argument for lasting triumph of the 60’s earthwork artists and suggests that their work nearly 50 years ago has colonized a patch of consciousness of the contemporary mind. 

In reflecting on Earthworks and the current environment, contemporary artists are adapting the ecological commentary to interconnected scope of today's world. Two UGallery artists, Eric Vanasse and Jesse Aldana, propagate and transform the environmental energies of early Earthworks through their figurative oil paintings.

Eric Vanasse photographed with his work

Eric Vanasse photographed with his work

Eric Vanasse, an oil painter from Canada, paints scenes that highlight the beauty of nature with subtle undertones of its fragility. He works within the theme of environmental art. The relationship between his work and that of Earthworks is salient in the way that it ignores its anti-gallery impulse while foregrounding its ecological impulse.

Earthwork's movement out-of-doors, perceived as an “anti-gallery” and “anti-museum” campaign, was inherently controversial in the art world. By using natural materials and amplifying work to an epic scale, artists flouted the confinement and commodification of traditional art forums. While this is undoubtedly bold, it corners artwork into a limited position whose controversy is difficult to sustain without shock factor.

On the other hand, the second prominent impulse behind the Earthworks seems to only have increased in relevance. The onset of the movement coincided with the ecology movement in 1960 that combated increasing eco-menaces such as litter, urban sprawl, and pollution in general and has proven to have longevity.

Eric Vanasse’s work highlights the shortcomings of the "anti-gallery" sentiment, while foregrounding the continued interest in the ecological factors.  

Because a painting is an imagined ecosystem, made of paint, contained by canvas, and unbound by place, it can push into a realm of speculation and hypothesis that the real world and Earthworks' scale cannot. 

Painting allows Eric to project imagined or unlikely scenes into the visual world that awakens chilling realizations about the current climate. For example, in his series, “Losing Paradise,” he creates work that centers on wild animals losing their natural environments.

In Losing Eden, he perches a polar bear on a rock distinctly outside of the arctic. The thrashing, dirty waves and angry sky tinge the painting with an impending doom. By mixing elements of realism and imagination, he simulates a vision, heightens the anxiety and uncertainty, and consequently, compels emotion.

Jesse Aldana photographed with his work

Jesse Aldana photographed with his work

Just as Eric Vanesse sews a threatening undertone into natural beauty, Jesse Aldana, a Los Angeles-based artist, paints beautiful scenes in which human influence and natural beauty come into direct contact. 

Jesse often portrays stark oppositions throughout his paintings such as sky and street, concrete and air, and building and clouds. These junctures between the natural world and the manmade world are a reminder of mankind’s chilling grip on the landscape, and vise versa. 

While the work of these artists diverges from earthworks in its relationship to medium and site, they imbue the theme of ecology with a multiplicity of perspective, vision, and potential. 

These new perspectives suggest that when a work of art is so inextricably bound to its place, it is profoundly limited to its own situation. So as these ecological statements translate into a post-earthworks world, the most innovative aspect of Earthworks in the 1960s becomes its most limiting aspect in 2017.

By innovating with sight, rather than site, artists such as Eric Vanasse and Jesse Aldana, guide viewers to a visual agility and elastic perspective. Their freedom as painters can present different versions of the world that break beyond one rock face, or lakeside horizon line, or city in upstate New York.