Sunday, August 7, 2016

“There is No Nature”—A thesis by Milwaukee artist Peter Beck

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The provocative title seems perfectly rational after hearing MFA thesis graduate Peter Beck talk about the Anthropocene era and the significance of human interference on the natural processes that sustain life on earth. The once commonly held view of nature as separate from humankind and distinguishable from the human-designed material world has been disintegrating for some time now. But there is not yet wide public acceptance of the notion that we have entered an era in which human influence on every aspect of what used to be called nature is so profound that we can no longer tease them apart.

One role of the artist is to be an agent of change, to herald if not affect what is happening all around us. An artist can help disrupt conventional understanding and point to new ways of perceiving the world. In the case of this work by Beck, on display recently at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries, the implications of humanity’s impact on nature can be visualized.

Tool No. 1, Subject/Object Confusion
Like a dog chasing its tail—then catching and biting it—an ax fashioned from a long, supple limb is bent so that it splits itself in half.

Tool No. 2
The missing spade end of a spanking new shovel reveals the “natural” source from which it is fabricated. The raw, unfinished wood of the stump no longer suggests nature but violence.

There is No Nature
A more subtle but ultimately more profound metaphor is created in the titular piece. For “There is No Nature” Beck painstakingly deconstructed and then remanufactured a tree limb. Suspended from the ceiling with cables, its gracefully arching form mimics “reality.” But because it is literally disconnected from its original context it more closely resembles a prosthetic human limb than one growing from a tree trunk.

In the new reality suggested by this sculpture we can envision a world in which “artificial nature” is not a contradiction but ordinary. It is a world of robotics, genetic manipulation, wildlife management, and climate change.

How to Archive Family Photographs
The exhibit is rounded out with a contrasting piece called “How to Archive Family Photographs." A delicate and faded photo extracted from a family album has been ensconced in an artfully crafted wooden tray embedded in a wall-mounted pedestal.

Although Beck borrowed rather than created this photograph, it connects the sculptures to his earlier work. Peter and I became acquainted when he was hired to replace me at Marquette after I quit teaching. When he invited me to see his thesis exhibit I had expected to see photography, with which I was familiar. His foray into sculpture was a refreshing surprise. I was particularly struck by the meticulous and superb craftsmanship of the work.

There is No Nature (detail)
We discussed craftsmanship. It’s something I personally value but, Peter told me, can be met with skepticism in academic circles--and even sometimes in the art world at large. (Coincidentally, in the July 17, 2016 issue of the New York Times Magazine, Chuck Close was quoted on the subject: "The dirtiest word in art is the c-word. I can't even say 'craft' without feeling dirty.") 

Peter described contrasting reactions among his fellow students. His precision and woodworking skills elicited admiration, but he also found himself defending not only his thesis but also those very skills with buttresses of theory and concept. Rather than being onerous, he said he found it rewarding to do so. The rigorous program and stimulating interactions with faculty and other students, along with diversity, he told me, were among the reasons he chose to pursue his MFA at the School of the Art Institute.

Like the people in the yellowing photograph in its neat wooden tray, we are all captives of a continually evolving culture, insects in the amber of history. Today, though, that history is increasingly being directed, if not completely controlled, by our own species. In more ways than one, nature is what we make of it.


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