While New York’s Frieze Week is drawing to a close—and Independent, Future Fair and TEFAF have come and gone—there’s thankfully always more art to experience in NYC. Here are four must-catch shows in three Chelsea galleries that reawaken the multidimensionality of landscapes and nature—peculiar, mechanically engineered, pure, surreal, nostalgic and all too human.
Against Nature at Pace Gallery
A decade after his last New York exhibition, Brooklyn-based artist Matthew Day Jackson uses a book by 19th-century writer and art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans as a point of departure for his ruminations on the fantastical incarnations of nature. Jean des Esseintes, the aristocratic protagonist of Against Nature (1884) decides to forgo social life to retreat into the enjoyment of intellectual and aesthetic pursuits in the countryside—for him, this is what true luxury entails. The novel explores pessimism and hedonistic experiences while positioning itself in support of the nascent Symbolist movement.
In ten landscape paintings that include collages as trompe-l’oeil, Day Jackson revisits the message of the book and our relationship with nature through a distinctively eerie and decadent take on decaying vistas. His motifs include waterfalls, powerful geysers, desiccated trees and mountains, yet these are often altered and manipulated. Matterhorn Crumbling in AImagined Landscape (2023) includes its namesake Swiss mountain represented as resting above a wooden scaffolding as if it were the sculpture-in-progress of a great architect. Day Jackson’s inclusion of metal to represent water interrogates fluidity and stillness, adding a shape-shifting property to the material. The presence of two celestial spheres—moons, suns, other planets—conveys an otherworldly feel in these iridescent skies. Decisively transcendental, yet an incongruity. Is this nature free of human intervention? Is it friendly or hostile? Day Jackson sketches a topography of ambiguity, in that most of his work suggests moments of primordial creation and post-apocalyptic doom, an irresistible attraction and a dread. In other words, the two sides of the sublime.
Day Jackson emulates neo-Romanticism and pioneers of the Hudson School in his nods to Caspar David Friedrich, Thomas Cole and Thomas Moran among other historical painters captured in the titles of his artworks (“in the manner of”) and his subject matter. Against Nature also recalls that nature is the physical embodiment of our imagination and a political construct. Though centered on Huysman’s novel, Day Jackson’s proposition extends to a critique of Manifest Destiny and post-human worlds.
Liu Xiaodong: Shaanbei at Lisson Gallery
Conversing with Day Jackson’s re-invented vistas of nature’s immensity is a solo show narrating the story of an intimate return and landscapes rediscovered. In a new body of large-scale neo-realist paintings, diaries, paper drawings and a documentary, Beijing-based painter Liu Xiaodong revisits his past and an important encounter from three decades ago. In 1985, he visited Shaanbei, a culturally and historically significant area in northern Shaanxi, in China’s hinterland. This location has long been associated with Mao Zedong’s Long March (1934-1935), a military retreat that led to the rise of Chinese Communism. At the time, Liu was an art student at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art. He accompanied a troupe and stayed in a modest hillside village. The paintings and his summoned memory come alive in a 40-minute documentary where we follow the artist’s watercolor drawing by a river and a towering viewpoint. With his sketchbook from the 1980s, he searches for a vanished world, asking after former models. “It’s when I look at my paintings that I remember more,” he says to a friend, evoking the traditional art of remembering Chinese characters through stroke sequencing, here extended to drawing. The memory of his pen/brush is more convincing to him than his own as if it were a distinct organ.
His plein-air portraits feature local people of all ages. Because past and present collide, Liu’s youth often appears in contrast with the elderly. Boredom and longing permeate both groups (in form, his subjects are masses, many) and the composition of the scenes. Teenagers dressed in sportswear drink alcohol and play with their smartphones, but just like the elderly, they sit or stand watching life go by. They don’t appear to be speaking with one another but simply enjoying the physical presence of others. Liu’s gaze looks at the rural in modernity, and modernity in mythologized ancestral rural ways. Are the hands of the young man scrolling on his cell phone the same as those of his farming parents or grandparents? As such, his show engages with nostalgia, transience and self-reliability. He is propelled as a narrator of loss and change who is forced to decipher the familiar and the strange. After the bygone days, what remains as the “spirit” of a place?
Rites of Passage and Thinking of You at C24 Gallery
Landscapes can also be exuberant and forbidden. In a double show at C24, Cheryl Molnar and Christian Vincent, as well as Fırat Neziroğlu respectively present Rites of Passage and Thinking of You. In Rites of Passage, collage artist Molnar allows foliage—palm, traveler’s tree, cacti—to overtake suburban scenes (Boulevard, 2023) and a historic amphitheater (Remnant, 2023). As such, plants (nature) redefine perspectives and horizons. They are inside the canvas but they also step into it from outside the frame. Neon color, present in Fences (2023), reminds one of the saturated palettes of the West Coast and sparks questions: To which items should artificiality apply… nature or urban objects?
Vincent’s ode to blissful summer is on full display in oil paintings where characters abandon themselves to their surroundings in several seaside landscapes of adventure. In Dawn (2022), a young man holds a yellow snake in a field, as the personification of a coming-of-age story. In Rugburn (2022), a school-aged child muse poses indoors for an artist, having fallen asleep while reading a book. Vincent’s investigation of abandonment and sensorial pleasure finds resonance in Neziroğlu’s U.S.-debuted work. On kilim-like tapestry portraits, Neziroğlu yassifies Western mythology—a collective subconscious landscape—as objects of queer desire. The god of war and the goddess of love, Ares (2019) and Aphrodite (2019), pose seductively in their 21st-century human incarnations. Neziroğlu weaves the image of his friends, prompting the viewer to search for the divine within themselves. What is nature but a mirror, the projection of ourselves in it and of itself on us?
Against Nature is on show at Pace Gallery (W 25th Street) through July 1. Liu Xiaodong: Shaanbei is on show at Lisson Gallery through June 10. Rite of Passage and Thinking of You are on show at C24 Gallery through July 14.