If the front cover of June 2018’s National Geographic teaches us one thing it is that what was widely referred to as ‘nature’ is over, finished, no more. The American environmentalist Bill McKibben may have announced it in 1989 in his book The End of Nature, or the English philosopher Timothy Morton in Ecology Without Nature in 2007, but here, in the homes, workplaces and waiting rooms of global millions, is the spectacle of its death: a plastic bag, half submerged, appears as though an iceberg thrusting out of the water.
From now on we must, as a matter of political urgency, speak of techno-human-nature entanglement. To do otherwise would assume nature remains intact. That landscape is untainted. This is what the title of The Sculptors Print Group’s exhibition at Angus-Hughes Gallery acknowledges: that landscape as physical terrain is incontrovertibly altered by humans and technology. Altered landscapes are those prairies sequinned by blinking wind farms that James A. Wade Jr. drives through to make his drawings or the confounding spaces Pam Brown constructs by colliding particle diagrams with Capability Brown vistas.
Brown’s romantic-scientific imagery is rich and suggestive, reminding us, poignantly, precisely, that something is valued as it faces destruction. Romantic ideas of landscape emerged in Britain with the industrial revolution and although the industrial age may have ‘ended’ forty years ago antiquated attitudes to nature linger. Writing in the journal Nature in 2002, the chemist Paul Crutzen and the biologist Eugene Stoermer named this human-dominated, geological era the ‘Anthropocene’. Dating the beginning of the era 1784, it began the year James Watt patented the steam engine – the year the industrial revolution got on rails – and the beginning of the ‘carbonification’ of the atmosphere by the burning of coal extracted from Earth.
Drawn in the 1970s, Brown’s scientific diagrams of, among other things, nuclear power station processes and light particles, evidence a fascination with the invisible, molecular forces that determine even the most romantic landscapes – unsurprising given Brown’s connection to Coalbrookdale, a site of international significance where coke was first used to smelt iron ore.
Indeed, we might say that in the age of the Anthropocene there are no unaltered landscapes. Like mining or industry, farming has shaped the physical landscape for millennia. Both James A. Wade and Walter Early have histories rooted in farming in the Midwest. Driving across these landscapes, Wade explains, ‘you notice structures of agriculture and industry. Agrarian structures, such as granaries and barns’. Over the past few years wind farms have appeared, breaking up the expansive horizon.
Mesmerised by their twinkling lights at night, Wade is drawn towards them, driving across country in his pickup truck to encounter these alien structures. He keeps a visual journal of their strident forms, often annotating entries with routes, reminders and musical soundtracks. Such details are translated into a digital work space and composed on screen before using a laser to etch onto anodised aluminum sheets. From Wade’s roadside notations to layered compositions detailing structures and routes, to etching on panels, there is a translation – an alteration between materials.
Altered landscapes, then, beyond this idea of physical terrain incontrovertibly altered by humans and technology – Anthropocene landscapes – remind us of the alteration that every landscape undergoes through artistic mediation.
Walter Early’s thick, loose renderings – caught ambiguously between drawing and sculpture – have their basis in observations of things seen in the landscapes of the Midwest. Sketched with a Sharpie to achieve a dense line, the objects are reduced: a lattice gate and grass, an ice-cloaked tree, or stacked logs. Early describes the process of alteration as being ‘a passage from actuality towards abstraction’ so that not just line but scale becomes unclear. By scanning the drawings into a digital workspace, Early prepares them to be rendered on black acrylic to be cut using a laser. While his desire is to retain the spirit of the original drawing, it is a process of, for him, distillation to achieve intense, archetypal images of their kind.
Landscapes themselves are also always altering, but often over temporal durations beyond human perception. Landscape is a constant movement, not just a movement of the eye and the body, but the land and the sky, inwards and outwards. Beyond the physical horizon we must also speak of the human horizon, which opens landscape up to memory, perception and experience.
Brian Thompson’s prints and sculptures point to altered landscape in two significant ways: they disrupt this physical horizon as a characteristic point of fixity in the experience of landscape and thematise the distortions of memories after the experience of walking in the landscape. Like Wade, Thompson makes use of topological lines from maps, aerial photographs or GPS. The mapped track of the walk is the basis from which the prints are made. In his prints, for example those of Capability Brown’s Weston Park in Shropshire, vertical ‘god’s eye views’ are overlaid onto horizontal human perspectives from the ground.
Through the use of a digital workspace swatches of colour are isolated from photographically-mediated views and arranged as though bleeding out of the image. The material that constructs these prints are assembled after the walk itself, sometimes years later, in a process that is an imaginary restating of the walk through memories. Thompson’s jewel-like freestanding sculptures similarly map routes but are altered through media selected for its resonance with particular landscapes. Inevitably, landscape is altered through memory and land itself is a condensation of temporal processes. Walking is to twist and criss-cross between interiority and exteriority. Journey is a metaphor for life.
Too, walking out into the landscape is an essential part of Jane Thompson’s prints and paintings. This repeated daily routine reveals that the act of looking is never once and for all, but a temporal process – the more one looks the more one sees. In a landscape that is in constant movement this is potentially inexhaustible. For ‘Altered Landscapes’ she presents carefully-wrought details of a barn passed on these daily walks. Whereas in the past these detailed views have been presented in a grid to accumulate to a cogent view of an object, here we are denied the bigger picture, left to scrutinise details and erect this rusting hulk in our minds.
All of the Members of the The Sculptors Print Group have worked primarily in sculpture that has directly responded to or has been situated within landscape. Too move to print, then, is to shift dimensions and employ other senses. Landscape, as should be clear, is a complex category in and of itself. The cultural critic Raymond Williams, discussing the romantic landscape tradition, once characterised it as ‘separation and distance’. In the works of ‘Altered Landscapes’ it’s evident that the artists are not only concerned with the physical horizon – that register of separation of distance – but the human horizon too. Averting the gaze from this physical horizon their eyes are fixed, too, to the ground and the situation they find themselves in. Between the horizon and the ground, mediated through traditional and contemporary artistic processes, we begin to understand that we alter and re-alter not simply our landscape, but our very environment.
 Wordsworth’s influence on Thomas Jefferson’s pastoral imaginings of Virginia is detailed in Leo Marx’s extraordinary The Machine in the Garden (1964).
Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic based in Norwich, where he co-runs the gallery LOWER.GREEN. He is lecturer in Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art, London.