THE American landscape has always been an important influence on the American character. In the early days of the country, its vast, unchartered interior beckoned explorers and, later, immigrants, to build their lives on the land. The Yankee poet Charles Olson wrote in ``Call Me Ishmael'': ``I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America...'' And by space, Olson meant the vast expanse of America, from the harsh wilderness to the crowded city, from sea to shining sea. Olson suggested, in part, that throughout our history, Americans have internalized the landscape, while at the same time trying to conquer it. Its vastness was always part of its promise. And the landscape was synonymous with nature.
In the 19th century, American landscape painting was at its best when it was large -- great vistas and panoramas laid out in idealized grandeur. Man was the observer of this beauty, and he either tried to dominate it or he stood in romantic awe of its power. In any case, man and nature were understood to be separate.
But in the 20th century, the very definition of nature began to change and expand. The sciences established that there is much more to nature, indeed, to the universe, than meets the eye. And artists have begun to reinterpret what nature itself is, opening up the definitions to include the human. No longer is landscape only panoramic vistas. It may include the interior of the mind and human imagination as well as the cosmic order or subatomic systems. In expanding the meaning of landscape to include the human, man is seen to be part of the whole fabric of life.
AN art exhibition at the Denver Art Museum focuses on ``Landscape as Metaphor: Visions of America in the Late Twentieth Century,'' and the show is nothing less than a revelation.
Thirteen artists participated, and room after room opens to a large, intense new work. It is a challenging show: It requires a great deal of its viewers because none of the work is instantly accessible. There are puzzles here, mysteries to be worked out. At a time when the arts have been relegated to the status of mere entertainment, ``Landscape as Metaphor'' reminds us that art is capable of prying open conventional thinking to unmask the human errors that have lead to ecological disasters and to reveal greater and greater possibilities for understanding both ourselves and the world around us.
Guest curator Martin Friedman, formerly of the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, explains how the artists he assembled were rethinking the meaning of landscape.
``Some see it in ecological terms, others in spiritual terms, others in mythological terms,'' he says. ``But this [show represents] an expanded notion of landscape. It's an extraordinary leap from how we saw landscape 100 years ago. [Once] a vista seen in the distance, we now see it as part of our psyche, as part of our spiritual life as well as our physical life.''
There is an urgency in some of the work that defies a photographer's ability to document it. Martin Puryear's ``Camera Obscura'' incorporates a large, old cherry tree, cut down in the winter and strung upside down on a structure resembling a gallows. The image outraged a few local residents who protested the cutting of a tree to make an art work. The irony, of course, is that no one protested any of the other wooden works in the show -- and wood, after all, has been used for sculpture for a very long time.
Puryear's piece is itself a protest against the mindless destruction of natural resources. But there is more to the piece than the obvious intimations of protest. Once the viewer brushes those suggestions aside, the piece has more to tell us.
``You can also talk about it as a reversal,'' Friedman says. ``Branches become roots in a sudden inversion of reality.''
All these works, he says, permit themselves to be observed on many levels. ``Camera Obscura'' (perhaps a reference to the inverted image) is the first piece the visitor sees and one of the most powerful. But James Turrell's ``Trace Elements'' is a close second. A large installation that relies on a trick of vision for its form, the minimal piece creates vastly complicated implications. When you walk into the carefully lit, yet almost dark white room, it takes a minute for the eyes to adjust. What appears to be a pale blue painting turns into something else entirely.
I reach to touch the painting and touch nothing. It's not a flat surface but an ``aperture'' -- a large rectangular opening in the wall, lit by blue and red lights. When I stretch my hand out, I see infinity - endless, boundless space. The effect is disorienting at first and a little scary. But then, ``Trace Elements,'' too, is more than it seems to be. The landscape the artist takes on is eternity. There is no end, no circumference to existence.
But lest the viewer take life on earth for granted, Mel Chin's fabulous ``Spirit'' shakes up complacency. An enormous barrel sits poised on a long rope made of prairie grass. We know that the prairie is vanishing. The huge oaken cask reminds us of pioneer barrels that held flour, sugar, seed, oil, liquor, and especially gunpowder, and while we walk through the gently bowed room, through the narrow doors built askew, and under the barrel, we are also reminded what a precarious position we have allowed ourselves to assume as consumers of natural resources.
MATT Mullican takes us back into the realm of the imagination. His ``Five into Five'' is a magnificent birch sculpture -- built by museum carpenters to his specifications -- representing a kind of three-dimensional map. This is a city of the imagination: graceful, inviting, complex, and beautiful.
Lewis deSoto calls on his native-American heritage as well as advanced scientific theories to create a high-tech rendering of a Cahuilla creation myth. The artist asserts the importance of religious experience and perception within the context of contemporary science.
Mark Tansey's brilliant paintings warn us against human arrogance. ``Landscape'' (a working title), for example, in crimson monochrome, features a pile of broken stone monuments -- all fallen heads of state. Here is once again Ozymandius's empty hubris.
But then Meg Webster's garden speaks again to humankind's irrepressible creative spirit. She has created a micro-landscape on the museum grounds. Each rivulet and new hillock, each planted grass or flower reminds us that we can make our own lives works of art: In the very midst of our lives, we may each build beauty and meaning around us.
``The land is something we all share,'' Friedman says. ``We live on it, and we are inextricably part not only of the land, but of a continuum of the life of the universe....'' Nothing, he says, is what it seems to be in this show, and everything is filled with portent.
``I do think it's going to be hard to look at nature in the same way,'' Friedman continues. ``But these are metaphoric images of nature. Some are direct descriptions of nature; others deal with forms and systems that underlie nature or forces and spiritual reactions to it.''
In the end, it's the cumulative effect of the show that is the real work of art, the conception itself, as much as the component parts. Each of the highly personal and unique art works makes a single, complex, and stirring vision. There is more to the American landscape, to nature, to the universe, and to existence itself than the eye beholds, and a moral response is required of us.