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The shifting nature of earth artists

Collaborators used to think in monumental terms, but the form has shifted into more low-key aspirations. 'LAND/ART' reflects the evolution.

August 16, 2009|Susan Emerling

ALBUQUERQUE — In 1959, Walter de Maria envisioned tuxedoed men and bejeweled women watching "inexperienced people" dig a hole with a steam shovel on a vacant acre of land near an art-loving city while music played and parents screamed, "Get that bulldozer away from my child."

This conception is often credited as the first land art proposal and the tip of the iceberg of some of the most provocative -- and monumental -- art of its time. Fifty years later, the form has evolved into one with quieter, more ephemeral aspirations. Far from the macho, heroic projects that were the hallmark of the first generation of earth artists -- some of whom, like Michael Heizer, have spent close to 40 years moving tons of dirt to create massive, remote sculptural environments -- "leave no trace," or at least, leave an ecologically enhancing trace, are the watchwords of many artists working in the field.

Not surprisingly, New Mexico, with its near mystical natural beauty and vast open spaces, has become a hub of activity. This summer and fall, visitors will get to survey a wide swath of new work by this younger generation of artists, which has been brought together in "LAND/ART," a festival of coordinated exhibitions, lectures, symposia, film screenings (such as Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson's "Mono Lake"), blogs, public installations and site-specific sculptures organized by the 516 Arts gallery in Albuquerque.

Suzanne Sbarge, director of 516 Arts and LAND/ART's guiding light, says this is "the biggest arts collaboration" to occur in New Mexico, and it has proved extremely popular. Visitors have been seen wandering the streets of Albuquerque with the project's tabloid brochure trying to hunt down installations. The public interest has also caused the city "to rethink" some of the ways it handles public art, supporting more temporary installations. There is talk about whether the one-time project could grow into a biannual or tri-annual event.

Current projects include visits to Charles Ross' monumental "Star Axis" -- a 30-year earth-moving project to erect an 11-story star-gazing apparatus in a remote location 125 miles north of Albuquerque -- and Matthew McConville's small, contemplative Hudson River School-style oil paintings at Richard Levy Gallery that memorialize the great earthworks of the 1960s and '70s. For those who can't visit "Star Axis," there is an exhibition of three decades of Edward Ranney's photographs of the construction process as well as numerous group shows organized in different venues around themes such as virtual environments and environmental activism. Site-specific installations are designed to draw visitors to different parts of the state. Though not technically part of "LAND/ART," those seeking De Maria's work can book a night at the "Lightning Field" in Quemado, N.M., see a grid of metal poles sticking out of the ground and, with luck, catch a rare glimpse of the electromagnetic fireworks the artist hoped would materialize.

One of the event's advisors, artist Bill Gilbert, chairs the Land Arts of the American West program at the University of New Mexico. He regularly takes his students to Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" in Utah and James Turrell's "Roden Crater" in Arizona but finds that although his students are awed by what they call the work of the "grandfathers," they are more interested in creating work that has a more "empathetic relationship to the land rather than making huge gestures." As a result, a lot of the work exists only in maps, videos and photographs taken of transient events and objects.

Gilbert's mixed media project, "Matter of Fact: Walk to Work," part of a group show at 516 Arts, is typical of this way of working. In a gallery setting, the project consists of a long narrow topographical map made of dirt and sand, which sits on the floor beneath a video monitor that shows a digital overview of the same terrain. It is narrated by an audio recording of Gilbert talking his way through a three-day hike, which parallels his regular 50-mile highway commute of the last 20 years from his home in Cerillos, to the university.

With the help of a GPS positioning device, maps and camping gear, Gilbert set out to walk a straight line between the points. In the process, he blazed trails down rocky slopes, encountered late spring snowstorms, wildlife and barbed wire fences before hitting the outskirts of Albuquerque. The last five hours of his excursion were spent traversing the successive rings of housing developments and retail malls, which provide a history of the unbridled urban expansion that turned this small western pueblo on the banks of the Rio Grande into one of the fastest-growing cities in the West.

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