by Mark A. Cheetham. The Pennsylvania University State Press, 2018. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780271080031 (h/c), $124.95.
Reviewed July 2018
As the title of the scholarly book Landscape into Eco Art implies, its focus is the transition from pre-20th Century landscape painting to present day eco art, which is created in multiple media. Author Mark A. Cheetham, an art historian at the University of Toronto, identifies as a midpoint between traditional landscapes and anthropocene-themed contemporary art the sculptural interventions in the earth that emerged in the 1960s under the name “land art.”
At first blush, these three iterations seem discrete. To generalize: Western landscape painting was used propagandistically to proclaim manifest destiny; land art was driven by artists’ environmentalist and anti-capitalist impulses; and eco art has made use of scientific data, with the scientific community often functioning as a partner, to halt or reverse ecological damage. Unlike many artists, curators, and art historians, Cheetham envisions these genres as hinges, with artists looking backward—consciously or not. He argues that a richer understanding of landscape painting, land art, and eco art results from accounting for their mutual relevance. At the same time, he welcomes oppositional thought from readers.
Each chapter contains one or more thematic case studies exploring several works in depth. For example, one case study focuses on the work of four First Nations artists based in Canada, the first of which is Kent Monkman. His exacting appropriation of 19th Century landscapes as backdrops for subversive figurative subject matter (such as his two-spirited alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle) supports Cheetham’s thesis. Additionally, Cheetham considers the nuances of how the Cree artist has deviated from the source material—for example, choosing a color palette for The Fourth World (2012) that feels kitsch and highlights the artifice in the original work, which excluded First Nations people from scenes because they didn’t exhibit the racial purity considered necessary to complement the natural purity of painted landscapes of the era. In the same work, Cheetham also examines Monkman’s subtle ecological references, such as to the widespread killing of the buffalo, as seen in the image of carefree horses (which stand in for buffalo) lured to smack into a Richard Serra sculpture—itself an example of land art.
Landscape into Eco Art contains small reproductions in black and white and color, notes, an index, and a bibliography. The latter demonstrates that although eco art history is a recently named field (2014), its literature is extensive. Cheetham’s sources overall range from dissertations to philosophy classics, and from literature published within the art world to a 1969 issue of LIFE magazine framing land art as the new version of landscape painting.
This engaging book is recommended highly for academic libraries that support studio art, art history, environmental studies, or landscape architecture programs.