Does the Sublime Know Change? Updating Landscape for the Anthropocene

David Pettibone, "Sunny May 12 2017," 2017.
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The notion that we live in the Anthropocene, an era defined by human influence on our planet, bestows a new gravity upon representations of nature. Year With a Tree, at the Anchorage Museum, includes seventy-six of David Pettibone’s most recent high-realist watercolor and oil paintings documenting a single cottonwood tree near his home at the Eagle River Nature Center in Alaska over the course of one year: from May 13, 2016 to May 13, 2017. The museum presents the exhibition as a simple reflection on change, where a “single tree becomes the constant against which change is measured.” However, this curatorial vagueness downplays the underlying elephant-in-the-landscape-gallery context of our current times: it represents a particular species of anthropogenic change. Painted as it was, when it was, Year With a Tree acts as a subtle archive of climate change.

In spite of its accomplished realism, Pettibone’s oeuvre could be dismissed as critically innocuous or formally neutral, except that his subject matters are, themselves, political – perhaps even antagonistic. His Beekeepers (2012-14) series, for instance, catalogued a honey harvest from monoculture pollination to production, including the fight against diseases threatening the natural balance. The Whale as a Dish (2013) documented the highly contentious (to Western settler sensibilities) whaling culture of the Inupiaq people of Utqiagvik.

It isn’t easy, in conservative Alaska, for an institution or an artist to explicitly address itself to the Anthropocene. The state is acutely aware of climate-related changes affecting its Arctic sea ice, permafrost, and coastal storms (among other things). On the other hand, it’s also tied heavily to an oil and gas economy. In south central Alaska, Year With a Tree runs alongside (but subtly counter to) popular mythologies of the Alaskan “Frontier Sublime:” imagined as a vast open tundra surrounded by mountainous boreal regions, bear, moose, wolverines, and other dangerous beasts, earthquakes, volcanoes, frigid weather, snow and ice – untouched save for indigenous subsistence dwellers and a few colonial imitators. What this commonly repeated image lacks in whole truths, it makes up for in weight of legend. But Year With a Tree largely avoids this affinity for grandiose mythologizing. In fact, Pettibone’s series strikes a deep disharmony with the historical “Majestic Landscapes” exhibit two-floors down in the Museum’s brand-new Art of the North galleries.

David Pettibone, “Snow February 10 2017,” 2017.

In Pettibone’s works, the landscape (represented by a single tree) has been denied its conventional moment of sublime. Rather than attempting to dominate the subject by channeling transcendence, Pettibone reifies a new notion of the sublime through calculated, meticulous repetition. Now, the tree is almost too authentic: it has been overexposed not by mere traditional representation on canvas, but via repetition on canvases. This landscape is not unknowable, overwhelming, beyond comprehension. Rather, after a year of painstaking inspection and replication, Pettibone knows this tree. And after only a few minutes in the exhibition, that knowing has been passed on to the museum-goer. After even the most cursory glance at the subject in this exhibition, it would be negligent to ignore that this landscape was fixed a long time ago by the actions of the Anthropocene. To feel nature as untouched, unknowable, or, (god forbid) infinite, no longer feels possible for a twenty-first century imagination. The context of landscape has shifted enough by now that panoramas and nature scenes must also be revised – if not necessarily in style or technique, then in their relationship to the viewer and subject.

Neither is Pettibone’s landscape sublimely terrifying in the J.M.W. Turner sense, evoking its ability to kill us (see, for instance, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840). Now, the terror lies in our own horrific consumption – we have killed/are killing the landscape. Robert Macfarlane identified the contemporary British version of this uncanny sensation as a tradition of “eeriness,” which favors (among other things) “repetition to progress” in order to affect “dissent and unease.” Although aesthetically unlike what Macfarlane had in mind, in some ways Year With a Tree resonates with real affinity for the eerie.

As Macfarlane points out, the “eerie is alarming because its cause can rarely be explained or even detected.” Similarly, Year With a Tree does not present itself as eerie immediately. Rather, it becomes eerie as the viewer walks through the timeline – ending with the aged, dry, grey images of the tree in winter. Although there are small mossy signs of spring’s regeneration in the last three paintings, we are left at an uneasy point in the sequence. The winter of 2017 must have been longer than the previous one. When Pettibone initially began the project exactly a year earlier, the landscape was fresh-looking, moist, and green. It’s possible, though only gently implied, that the shift bears witness to the effects of anthropogenic changes to the environment – including shortened, extended, and unpredictable seasons. Even eerier is knowing that one year of affecting images would never be enough to alter the minds of foolish skeptics who make sport of denying decades worth of mathematical data. Or, perhaps the eerie is not really in the canvases at all, but buried deep in an especially twenty-first century anxiety; how, after all, can anyone but a fool look at a landscape painting today and not be seized by a deep ecological disquiet?

Pettibone’s paintings recall the disciplined repetition of a scientific study. And yet this series remains quite painterly. The artist very obviously takes liberty with “posing” his own perspective relative to the tree. He crops. He saturates. He includes more, or less. He blurs the background. He focuses the area around the tree. He concentrates on a small, detailed section. He uses thicker strokes. He uses thinner strokes. He leaves the paint pebbled. He varnishes. In Year With a Tree, the landscape loses its majesty and becomes something studied, concrete, and detailed. Rather than inspiring a stepping-back-in-awe, it inspires a stepping-up-to-inspect.

In all of these repetitions, the landscape is also truncated. No soaring mountain vistas, no endless horizon above the plains. The tree doesn’t tower above the viewer like one of Emily Carr’s swirling vertiginous lodgepole pines. Instead, Pettibone only ever gives us the lower two-thirds of the trunk (the largest three images have been sliced into six separate canvases – as though de-limbed and then re-limbed). And then there is the fact that this is a dying/dead tree. As the year progresses, Pettibone exposes a large crack near the ‘top’ of the trunk: Rain August 5 2016, Snow February 9 2017, or Partly Sunny Then Overcast May 13 2017. The acme of Pettibone’s tree is gone – chopped down by humans? Struck by lightning? Attacked by an invasive beetle? Deteriorated through other natural, non-natural, or anthropogenic effects? Here, the landscape is, as Macfarlane put it, “a site of contest rather than of comfort.”

David Pettibone, “July-August- Sunny, Rain, Sunny, Partly Sunny, Overcast.” 2017.

But signs of residual life remain supported by the stump. A few branches, sparkling with greenery, extend outwards horizontally from the peak of the splintered trunk in the first spring paintings. In Sunny September 1 2016, a thin layer of moss blankets the bottom of the tree, and boreal foliage, clinging to the lower bark, climb upwards. Animal scratchings appear towards the beginning of June. In Sunny June 8 2016 they become Pettibone’s primary subject of interest, with repeated studies of the scratchings following on Partly Sunny June 30 2016, and Overcast Sunny July 28 2016. Almost a year later, in Sunny May 12 2017, the bark around the scratchings emerges from a long winter patched with moss – what Macfarlane might identify as “a damaged nature, repressed but returning.” However, this is not the malign return Macfarlane describes. What Pettibone gives us is more akin to the natural struggle for survival, not a vengeful landscape, but a landscape with stamina.

While we often imagine the landscape as solid, static, stoic, in Year With a Tree, the habituation of the artist is the only actual constant. The recorded environment is revealed as the opposite: a dynamic force of perpetual transformation, transition, transfiguration. Pettibone avows that this changing environment “affect[s] the painter (and thus, the painting) as much as the tree itself.” The trickier bit is the viewer’s responsibility in internalizing the effect of that changing environment on themselves: no less in a momentary encounter with the sublime than in the broader moment of life itself.

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