Landscapes Revisited

Here is the text of a Yelp review I wrote about Seeing Nature, and exhibition of landscape paintings from the archives at the Portland Art Museum, published on 1/20/2016. 

I always enjoy spectacles where accumulation by dispossession (or the capitalist engine) steamrolls, uninterrupted, across my face. Requiring a visitor to pay nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents to absorb elements of the culture that creates them is one of the best examples of primitive accumulation, an example of enclosing the cultural commons to extract wealth from what belongs to the public. But thank you to the amazing Arts for All program, this remains a conceptual grievance so that I can turn the space of this review to another illustration of the capitalist agenda at work that I found during our visit on the last Saturday of Seeing Nature, an exhibit featuring landscape paintings at the Portland Art Museum. My interest in attending this exhibit was not the paintings themselves. Instead I was ecstatic for the opportunity to capture people interacting with these paintings and with the Western imaginary they illustrate. And so, Armed with camera, tripod, and stroller, we approached the institution. 

The role that landscape painters played in visioning the West and stimulating migration lingers in the urban landscape embedding this museum. With brands like Timbers and Stumptown, pioneering culture is alive and well in Portland contemporary vernacular. And for the last few months has been consumed and re-inacted by the publics attending Seeing Nature as well

When I "see nature" I see both resilient majesty and covert enclosure. The natural beauty witnessed on a hike or within these paintings exists prior to yet in relation with state power superimposed through the township/range/ownership grid. I cannot "see nature" without seeing people, settlement, ownership, political agenda, state capitalism. Landscape painters were part of a plan to enclose the vast, "unattainable" nature they depict. The federal government sought to expand power in the western frontier through the (mostly white) bodies of European/American settlers lured west through the Donation Land Claim Act and depicted in landscape paintings such as this: And thus land that once existed communally without property now claimed /"owned" by individuals for the purpose of extracting wealth/capital for themselves and for empire. Landscape paintings served as propaganda/advertisement for this settlement/migration. Today, people's consumption of landscape paintings re-enacts the moment in history they were created in and illustrates the continual consumption required by capitalism to function. The "West" is not the end point of a linear trajectory it is a cyclical performance re-enacted with each plaid jacket, timbers ticket, or untouched razor. We perform "West" and until we can see this we will continue to look at nature without truly "seeing" (ourselves in) it.