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ART AND ENVIRONMENT: LAUREN BERKOWITZ’S 'COLOUR FIELD'

Reproduced from Eden and the Apple of Sodom, exhibition catalogue, with permission from the Samstag Museum of Art, University, 2002.
Rachel Kent, 2002

Landscape and memory form persistent themes in the art of Lauren Berkowitz. Characterised by their incorporation of natural, found and recycled objects, Berkowitz's sculptures and site-specific installations transform their modest materials into poetic explorations of place and meaning through time. Berkowitz has employed diverse media since the early 1990s, creating substantial bodies of work for display in galleries, museums and public spaces. Plastic bags and onion sacks, glass vials and bottles, bunches of lavender, chillies and dried plant matter are given new form in the works, while contexts and meanings shift. Common to all is an active engagement with the world about us, and an invitation to view the everyday or the transitory as rich with symbolism and beauty.

Collecting is an equally persistent characteristic of Berkowitz’s practice, her assembling, collating and arranging of materials at once methodical and obsessive. Combing rubbish tips for glass bottles, supermarkets for plastic bags and railway sidings for plant clippings, Berkowitz has been likened to a 'bag lady’ 1 reinventing her trouves through the lens of art. Berkowitz's sculptures and installations are informed by Modernist art history, from Minimalism with its emphasis upon seriality and repetition to Arte Povera and Earth Art. A suspended wall of white plastic bags thus takes on the appearance of a Minimalist sculpture in monochrome, while perpendicular lines of coloured soil become a softly pulsating Op Art painting. The influence of environmental artists such as Robert Smithson and Richard Long is apparent in the artist's engagement with natural forms and materials - earth, leaves, dried flowers, salt - and her siting of works both inside the gallery space and outdoors. Often transient, or constructed for the duration of their display, they illustrate the passing of time as leaves dry and flowers shrivel, their scents becoming pungent with decay. A long-standing interest in gardens and the cultivation of beauty through colour and symmetry is equally evident in Berkowitz's practice. A number of themes arise out of the works, from European garden design and the creation of Arcadian Follies' to Australian native flora and conservation issues.

Recent site-specific works by the artist have drawn upon materials associated with or collected around the region in which they are displayed. Installations such as Strata at McClelland Gallery, Langwarrin (1999), Verdant at Herring Island (2001) and Rainbow Serpent Terrain at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre (2001) have incorporated diverse plant species, sand and grass to create commentaries on the land and its occupation through history. Comprising colourful bands of sand and gravel in a large rectangle upon the gallery floor, Strata evoked a visual history of the Langwarrin region and pertinent issues of soil degradation and erosion through tree clearing and stock grazing. Verdant and Rainbow Serpent Terrain likewise responded to their immediate localities, the latter drawing upon its Indigenous history and created in consultation with Aboriginal anthropologist Les Bursill.

Earlier works such as Heartsease at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (1995) and Follies at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1997) have similarly drawn inspiration from nature, the former taking the shape of a decorative garden bed in the grounds surrounding the gallery. Made up of imported and native flowers in colourful, radiating circles, it commented upon the history of European colonisation in Australia and the introduction of exotic flora into the Antipodean landscape. Created for the 1997 Australian Perspecta, Follies comprised three suspended walls of lavender, banksia flowers and chillies, symbolising English cottage gardens, European exploration and discovery (as symbolised in the naming of Banksia after Joseph Banks), and the 'New World'. These works reveal an engagement with the Australian landscape and its history, both before and after European contact. Added to this, the ecological imperative of more recent works such as Strata suggests that our relationship to the land in the 21st century is fragile, requiring attention and redress.

Commissioned for this exhibition, Berkowitz's new installation consolidates the themes and concerns that have evolved in her art over the past decade. Entitled Colour Field, it comprises a series of horizontal coloured bands made of dried flowers and leaves from exotic weeds, surrounded by a wide border of salt. Gathered by the artist from South Australia and Victoria over a period of several months, they are presented directly upon the gallery floor, and against the wall, becoming both a part of and extension upon the Museum's architecture. Colour Field invites multiple associations: referring to the artistic movement of the same name, it resembles a large, flat painting in which alternating waves of purple, yellow, green, red and white expand and recede in and out of one another to dazzling effect. Op Art, Hard-edge Abstraction and the visual purity of non-objective composition are evoked in the work, its saturated palette at once sensuous and playful. Capturing the spirit of optimism associated with American abstraction of the 1950s-60s, its decorative presentation suggests joyfulness as well as a quieter contemplation. Pleasure - specifically, the pleasure of looking - forms a central concern in the work, from textures to colours to the relationships between them. To this end, the artist notes, 'Colour Field is a transparent work; nothing is hidden from the viewer because everything, the structure and the various materials, is experienced through the surveying eye' 2 .

Gardens as sites of visual pleasure form another theme in the work. Embodying concepts of the picturesque and the idyllic often associated with 18th century English manor gardens, the work suggests an abundance of nature gently modified by the human hand. Recalling Thoreau's dictum that 'In Wildness is the preservation of the World' 3, it simultaneously evokes the natural while curtailing its excesses. This is as historian Simon Schama suggests in Landscape and Memory: 'Arcadia redesigned... was a product of the orderly mind rather than the playground of the unchained senses'. Citing bucolic frescoes in the literature of Vitruvius, 'satyric' landscape backdrops for the Roman theatre and Pliny's description of a hilltop view as 'an exquisite painting', he concludes: 'In all these instances there is a conscious element of artifice at work, simultaneously evoking natural forms but making sure they are corrected to eliminate the disturbing' 4 .

Disturbance, then, forms an underside to Colour Field, via the inclusion of decorative but noxious weeds in its design and their impact upon Australian native flora and ecosystems. Most of the plants used in Colour Field were imported to Australia in the colonial era as garden ornamentals for display purposes. Made up of Pattersons Curse/Salvation Jane (purple), English and Spanish Broom (yellow), Olive and Bridal Creeper (green), Bulbil Watsonia and Montbretia (red), Pampas Grass, Three-cornered Garlic/Angled Onion, Quaking Grass/Blowfly Grass and White Flowered Fumitory (white), it encompasses European and other introduced plant species that have infested large tracts of land, reduced habitats for local fauna, and replaced native plant communities. The inclusion of salt furthermore refers to increased rates of salinity in Australia following European colonisation, a result of rising groundwater tables and clearing of the land. Representing a form of environmental colonisation - the 'desire in a new country for imprinting the values of the old' 5— it presents a dystopian vision rather than earthly paradise. In this regard Colour Field resonates perhaps most strongly with Australian landscape painting of the Heidelberg era and beyond, with its evocations of colour and light on one hand, and - in the works of Drysdale, Nolan and Boyd - its parallel narratives of environmental devastation.

Colour Field unites Berkowitz’s art historical and environmental concerns. Situated between the orderly and the entropic, harmony and discord, it reflects a modern-day landscape of complexity and change. In his Writings, Robert Smithson decried outright the pictorial approach to nature, proposing that 'The gardens of history are being replaced by sites of time' 6 . Suggesting that pictorial conventions are the product of a particular era and ideology, and reflect ways of constructing nature, art historian Gary Shapiro concludes that 'they are not escapes from time and history but hostages to temporality'. Sites of time, alternately, 'are those locations that manifest the forces of growth, change, decay, spoliation, mixture, and drift' 7 . Berkowitz’s sculptures and installations bear out this shift in meaning, their makeshift construction and transitory existence like a work in progress, caught between invention and completion.

Notes.

1. Natalie King 'Bag lady', Lauren Berkowitz; Bags, Bottles, Newspapers, exhibition catalogue, Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, Melbourne 1994, np.
2. Artist's notes, 2001, np.
3. Simon Schama 'Arcadia redesigned', Landscape and Memory, Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1996, 525.
4. Simon Schama, 530.
5. Roger McDonald The Tree in Changing Light, Knopf Books, Australia, 2001, 56.
6. Gary Shapiro Earthwards; Robert Smithson and Art After Babel, University of California Press, USA, 1997, 120.
7. Gary Shapiro, 120.

 

Rachel Kent
Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

Copyright © 2002, the author and the Samstag Art Museum, South Australia