Updated: Oct 21, 2018
In a famous statement by Jackson Pollock, when asked by Hans Hoffman whether he worked from nature (i.e., from drawings or models), he said “I am nature” and then refused to elaborate. When we consider the work of Virginia Katz in its various guises, this statement may also occur to us. It offers a key to the weight of her accomplishments, which have over time expanded into varying dimensions of an artist not only working from nature, but becoming it. The concept behind Land or Environmental Art creates a decisive break with the narrative conditions within art of the past that depended upon the natural world, such as the Impressionists, or that speculatively utilized spaces for esthetic fodder while imposing conditional restrains, as in Conceptual Art. Katz investigates nature’s vastness and multiplicity as an expressive sublime, and her work alternates among the four elements, and between degrees of perception and projection of scale and depth of meaning.
LAND is one of her themes in which she has been making much of her newer work, is characterized by the use of a single word from spoken vernacular, used in songs or proclamations of discovery or traditional song. Katz’s process is likewise one of exploration and excavation, in which discovery matches, act for act, the use of the metaphor along with the appearance of land torn asunder. It’s nearly impossible to comprehend the true nature of something without deconstructing and analyzing it piece by piece. The reclamation of a landscape starts from the bottom upwards—from its most mysterious nether regions to its more aesthetic surface—for the Earth is no mere sculpture. To comprehend the earth we must have some knowledge of why it exists. Katz’s exploration proceeded in stages, and we get to see each of them on her website, which in narrative precision presents earlier models if we venture deeply enough. It’s my intention to do so, if only to provide you with the proper understanding of what her current work is and does. Katz’s recent works in the LAND series have emerged from a continuity of explorations of spatial, dimensional, intimate, and iconic depictions of the larger earth around us, viewed as if upon a globe or via a telescope orbiting around it. These works are diffuse and expressive, and are received to the unadulterated visual cortex as large abstractions until we realize that, in multiple images side by side, that what we are seeing is not a series of expressions but impressions gleaned from both an imaginary and a scientific viewpoint. With the aid of meteorological reports, weather photographs, and films that provide a basis for understanding the scale and portent of completely ambiguous phenomena as vigorously rendered.
Three types of work rank under this theme, two of which are two-dimensional and the other is three-dimensional (though some may call them reliefs). They use various titles but connect by their appearance and by the type of perspective and detail with which they are rendered. Katz proceeds in fits and starts as she simultaneously develops the two dimensional versions, which in their earliest guises were more painterly and evocative rather than depictive of real natural appearances or events. Katz never sticks to one format but makes both, addressing the illusion on the one hand, and the reconstruction on the other. The picture and the object both narrate different ends of the same spectrum, the picture placing us above events, looking out over the earth, from an omniscient perspective: seeing water current, winds and clouds, and land masses all as one palette; while her objects mine the intimacy of a direct reckoning with evidence of man’s transgressions with the beauty and complexity of the living environment around him.
Innovation in art emerges not only from a desire to diverge from the norm, but in direct relationship to forms of expression that are more traditionally though no less palpably achieved. Virginia Katz’s ‘Land’ series includes a range of watercolors that act as a foil to her relief and mixed media works, and add characteristically to our comprehension of her oeuvre. Nature enters the senses in an ineffable manner and is translated through the creation of charismatic impressions, sometimes recalling a specific event or a specific period of growth. It is Katz’s intention to disperse or dissolve the image into transparency, as a means of reflecting the moralistic and metaphysical effects of extreme loss through human error and natural disaster. Not only do her watercolors achieve an extreme degree of transparency, radically de-emphasizing the three-dimensional qualities so central to her other work, but they do so in order to let go of the physical, to drift in the stream of a diminished consciousness, challenging the viewer to enter into a purely metaphysical realm that mirrors the real at every turn. Alternating between perspectival distance, subject matter, and narrative relationships between some of the images, Katz creates a varied and complex series. Each can be received on its own merits, though cumulatively or in bunches they may also relate what seems more like a story than an attitude or world-view.
Although Katz records and reflects upon both natural and man made disasters, there is an inherent presumption on her part that the most prominent ones are connected in some way to either a human act (some repercussion of the mishandling of the environment, in which human concerns were made to obscure and diminish nature’s needs), or the mere inability of mankind to live in the natural world in such a way that when natural disasters do happen, they could reduce the effect upon themselves. Culpability is connected not only to acts of selfishness, destruction, and a wanton disregard for other forms of life, but also to mismanagement of population density, industrial by-products, a and other dynamics that do not suggest a responsible coexistence with nature, but makes self-reflection necessary.
What Katz achieves is completed and motivated by the use of strategies to create art works relying not only upon data and mechanical observation, but in some cases the element itself. The sculptural works in Virginia Katz’s Land series present a study in forms that is simultaneously a paradox of intent. Why does the artist, in effort to discover the nature of the Earth, present us with one that has been torn open? Clearly she wants to gaze not merely upon or over the landscape, but beneath the surface, to see its bones and flesh laid bare. She wants to undress it. It takes the viewer a moment to reorient to the object of their attention. There is a vague presentiment that what we are seeing is somehow the bowels of a person and this is perhaps what Katz intends. The earth itself, as an object spinning in space and containing multiple organisms, a specific ecology, and billions of sentient beings, is too much to take in. At the material level, as one of five elements, it is too atomized and perhaps also too metaphysical. Yet where we can see that it was purposefully deconstructed it takes on an emotional narrative. The progress of Katz's vision through alternating and successively advanced means is a testament to her vision in applying herself to an impossibly broad theme, to create models that speak to the issues at the core of her rigor, so that through examination of the world around us more of who we are is revealed in the process.