Taking art beyond the studio to the landscape, Nancy Holt’s career has been linked with the ‘Land Art’ of Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria and her late husband, Robert Smithson. Concerned with temporal interventions in specific sites, the work has an ambivalent status located outside the traditional, commodified nature of the art market. At Haunch of Venison, Holt exhibits over hundred photographs that document such site specific work or thematically link existing natural or man-made structures.
‘Sunlight In Sun Tunnels’ of 1976 charts the progression of the sun in the sky as light flows through apertures drilled into the roof of a concrete tunnel. Like a series of cinematic frames, moving light and shadow within the tunnels evinces the nature of time determined by nature’s clock, the sun. Sunlight slips across the hard surface of the concrete skin while the surrounding landscape remains visibly fixed, framed by the entrance to this circular sculpture.
An earlier piece, ‘California Sun Signs’ of 1972, photographically documents marketing cliches on billboards and signs that connect Californian sunshine with notions of hedonism and health. But this ambition is ironically subverted by the kitsch designs and tatty condition of these motels and shops, casting doubt whether the promise of satisfaction can ever be fulfilled. Arranged as a randomly shaped grid, these images of metaphorical vitality acquire a pleading quality by selling a climate for cash.
Perhaps, the most successful piece in the show, titled ‘Western Graveyards’ of 1968 is a composite of 60 prints running alongside two full walls of one room, documenting westwards migration. These graves have an improvised quality. Love and respect drive attempts to build places of remembrance delineated by arrangements of stones, plastic flowers and ribbons. Often, scripts on wood or stone are eroded, barely legible. Many graves appear anonymous, abandoned or lost to memory and seem to be returning to dry dust. There is a pathos to this work, a tribute to the grind of building lives in an unyielding environment. But ‘Western Graveyards’ also speaks of the almost futile project to settle the mythic west.
Holt’s career addresses this human impulse to fashion nature whether on Dartmoor in England or in the American deserts. Where her work is most beguiling is on the boundary where hope and desire meets the resistance of environment, site and time.
Placed within a framing alcove above a formal staircase, a small sapling appears to grow out of a block of wood. Penone’s ‘To Repeat the Forest’ miraculously resuscitates a young sapling from a piece of commercial timber in which it has been entombed. Time has been stripped back and the facts of early genesis exposed. In this singular work alone, Penone demonstrates his lyrical interest in the irrepressible transitions that underlie all living and material forms.
‘Maritime Alps’, first made during the 1960s, documents how Penone retreats from urban life to photograph his physical encounters within the forest. With precision, he marks out where his body has touched the tree, using wire and nails embedded within the living bark. Elsewhere, the photographs record the action of installing a cage placed over a young tree which will ascend, in tandem, towards the light. Nature here expresses a primal response to human intervention. In the most pronounced gesture, he attaches a cast of his hand to the point of original touch oand subsequently documents how the tree grows around the tightly clinging hand. This ambivalent reaction appears both nurturing and suffocating. More recently, he subjects this invasive presence to radiography to create an eerie suggestion of disease, and the tree’s ensuing strategy for recovery.
‘Space of Light’is a hollowed trunk in which Penone strips out early growth leaving a vacuum filled with ambient light and a residue of resin as if the juices of the tree had pooled together in mortal exhalation. Richard Long’s ‘Stone Print Spiral’ shares the same room, a familiar unfurling circle on the floor harvested from a Danish river, which appears more assertive, leaving less room for dialogue between fact and invention than Penone’s investigations of similar natural forces. Long’s work, simultaneously shown in adjoining galleries, is more insistently concerned with the application of superimposed mathematical and linguistic systems.
Penone also exhibits a remarkable new series of large drawings that extrude over paper backed by canvas. Titled ‘Skin of Graphite’ these subtle works suggest patterns found on the surface of membranes, plants or rocks. The faint, silvery sheen of shapes made in pencil gradually emerge from the dark paper beneath and lock together in harmonious irregularity. These ambitious drawings serve to amplify Penone’s symbiosis of human culture and Nature, a dialogue of interdependence, control, impotence and renewal.