On not taking nature for granted

It's a pity we so often take nature for granted - or ignore it completely - in today's art. Even many of our better landscape paintings look more like something glimpsed through the window of a fast-moving train than like a real place occupied by living trees, plants, insects, animals, and birds.

Sculpture, of course, has never had this problem, largely because it has been so closely allied with architecture, and because it has so frequently given monumental form to national and religious ideals.

Painting, on the other hand, tends to be more flexible and informal, less inclined to be viewed within utilitarian contexts. It has, as a result, ranged far and wide, utilizing not only almost every subject, but every style as well.

The form a painting takes, and the subject it celebrates, is as much a matter of personal choice as of societal preference. Painters, in particular, feel increasingly free to choose their own style and direction. The shift away from nature in art from 1950 to 1975 must thus be seen as an individual as well as an art-world decision, just as the movement back to it today on the part of several of our better younger artists indicates a reversal of both private and collective concern and commitment.

This commitment is total. No halfway measures, or the sort of stylistic fence-straddlings employed by landscape painters during the first three decades of this century, are permitted. The insistence of those earlier artists that nature conform - at least on canvas - to formal post-Cezanne and Cubist ideals has no meaning to our younger painters. For them, nature must be confronted afresh.

A few recent painters have gone one step further, focusing their attentions not only on the landscape itself, but on what lives and grows within it. Nature, for them, is the home and the domain of deer, crows, dragonflies, mice, etc., and is not merely a backdrop for human activity, or an excuse for formal inventiveness.

This perception of nature is quite a radical departure, simple as it may seem. Imagine a small creature living and hopping about in one of Claude's or Cezanne's landscapes, or in any of the thousands of works by artists such as Sheeler, Benton, or Wood. It simply couldn't have happened. The animals that were depicted tended to be studies of creatures serving human needs.

Small wonder, then, that I was a bit taken aback when I first saw the canvases of Melissa Miller. In them, polar bears, herons, rabbits, foxes, deer, and other animals and birds live an independent existence in landscapes that obviously have never been visited by humans.

I had problems with these paintings at first, and thought them merely oversize animal illustrations, just one more example of gimmickry masquerading as art.

I soon changed my mind. I studied them more carefully, discovering that they were actually quite remarkable, that the artist had, in fact, introduced a new element into the art of the 1980s through them.

Melissa Miller has fashioned a pictorial world from which all human beings have been excluded, and within which stark, primal dramas unfold that we, with our more ordered and civilized attitudes toward life, can only partly comprehend. In her world, nothing can be taken for granted. Every creature, large or small, must remain fully alert at all times for any indication that an enemy is near, or that the elements are about to go on a rampage.

This constant state of acute awareness is manifest in every work of hers I've seen. The atmosphere in her paintings is taut and pregnant with anticipation. Something is going on, or is about to happen, but the only clues we have to what it is comes from the actions of her animals and birds.

In ''Against the Wind,'' two foxes strain to sniff the wind, but for what? In ''Northern Lights,'' five polar bears and one large rabbit (the latter standing on its hind legs), face a display of northern lights with what appears to be awe. In ''Untitled 1982,'' several tigers watch a few monkeys perform a strange ritual dance. And in ''The Swamp,'' three large birds and two alligators keep a wary eye on each other under a darkening ominous sky.

In every case, we're made very much aware of how harsh and uncompromising nature can be at its most basic level. For once, we see reality from an animal's point of view, a shift in perspective made all the more effective by the fact that Miller neither sentimentalizes nor idealizes the wild beasts and birds she portrays. The result is something unique in 20th-century art, and a rich addition to the new wave of painting taking root in the 1980s.

The picture reproduced on this page is a good case in point. It is seven feet high, dramatic in theme and execution, and one of the strangest animal pictures I have ever seen. Thanks to its lack of title, we have no real clue to the artist's intentions, other than what we can decipher from the work itself.

That tells us relatively little. All we can say with certainty is that something dramatic has startled the deer. Beyond that, it's up to us to figure out what is going on.

I, for one, don't mind. I'm willing to accept the probability that animals and birds follow patterns of behavior we ''civilized'' folk know nothing about.

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