Nature Incorporated

A fable is a place where, for a time, two worlds meet. But the two places are utterly alien to each other, incommensurate. If one manages to cross over into the other, it is never for long, and often carries with it a penalty. Ultimately the visitor must be either expelled in order to restore the natural order of things or they must wholly change from what they once were. Amy Stein’s recent showing at the Koch Gallery called New American Fables is an examination of two worlds that have increasingly come into collision: the natural world and human habitation.

A few in the series seem like opening sallies, prologues of sorts. In one two wolves nose about in a toppled metal trash can beside a suburban home. As one scavenges the garbage for food, the other bears a curious expression as if he is marveling at this unexpected find. It is a precursor of what will become a theme running through the works. When scrutinizing her photographs, the eye inevitably is drawn to the gaze of its participants. They are never singular, but a mingling of several possibilities at once, many contradictory, with motives often not fully developed. Another work shows a bear rummaging through shopping bags in the back seat of a Buick Century. The detritus of his search is scattered about the lawn in the foreground: apples and bananas, toilet paper, eggs, a bag of wonder bread. Only a few feet away an old woman cradles two unplundered bags of groceries protectively. She clearly hasn’t been so scared that she has rushed away to seek help and despite the fact that she lives in what looks like a fairly wooded neighborhood seems completely surprised to find wildlife intruding. If anything her expression is rather flummoxed or embarrassed rather than shocked or distressed. Her posture suggests that she also isn’t about to budge.

One world regards another. It might seem that there is a dichotomy here between two types of assessment: one at a greater loss than the other. The animals are only capable of bewilderment and limited by hard wired instinctual response. People are capable of greater cognition no doubt and so greater understanding in such an encounter. But these are fables. Stein’s narratives give the subjects both more and less than what we might expect to enrich and deepen interpretation. In an overgrown strip between lanes of a highway, a fawn stands, either unconcerned or uncertain. On either side of her the expanse is lit up by the passing traffic and city lights, both reduced to smears by long exposure. A barrier is arranged between the deer and the highway, cutting her off from the wooded hill on the left. Trapped in a thin stretch of what is left of vegetation, amongst the cattails in their candy cane postures and the wildflowers, it is hard not to project onto the deer a judgement being made: that this new world is absurd or insane. Perhaps it is not unconcern but disbelief? After all, her natural predators have been replaced with agents of deadly force which could kill her in an instant. And her death would be merely accidental: the result of machines created for the convenience of zipping us along to our destinations at 85 mph.

Having gotten a taste of what’s in store with a few mouthfuls of garbage and wonder bread, we can move from the appetizers to the main course. Suggesting that there is a sequence here is entirely subjective. But the rubric of new fables is more than just a clever overarching categorization. The composition, the arrangement and the weirdly acute gift for capturing expression in body language imbue all the works with the sense of a story in progress, the illustrated plate accompanying a children’s book perhaps. They retain enough a degree of ambiguity that the viewer can identify more than one possible interpretation, but Stein has anchored them with enough elements that the artist’s intent is not needlessly obscure. This is valuable since “issue pieces” are pretty much one shot deals. Once you’ve received the message, the game is effectively up. Stein is intensely devoted to investigating the underlying psychological aspects of her subjects and since this requires a degree of identification and introspection from us, they are as fascinating as a biography. Like any good narrative, drama needs conflict, and she is wise to pair imminent physical danger with the conflict of two creatures coming to terms with the other’s existence.

For example, at first glance, an image of a child staring down a bear in her backyard is charged with the obvious drama of the physical threat of the hulking animal. But the bear is not looking at the girl at all, his head is turned to the side as if he’s taking in all the accoutrement of suburban life and wondering “what is all this shit?” Her gaze however is locked on the bear. Her stance is not one of patient defensiveness like the old woman’s but of calm appraisal, complete absorption in this being from another world. The reason might lie scattered amongst the furnishings and manufactured goods that surround her. She is after all, standing on the diving board of a swimming pool, an artificial re-creation of a natural feature of landscape, that must be pumped full of chemicals to preserve its artificial state. The bathing suit she’s wearing, the deck chairs surrounding the pool are all patterned in what are deemed “natural” prints: decorative approximations of living features of the natural world like leaves or flowers. The girl is then accustomed to some kind of acquaintance with nature, but it is nature several times removed: processed, reimagined, domesticated. Somewhere in her stare lies the undercurrent of desire, hitherto designated to a proxy and only now confronted with the signified.

The image, which like all good fables underlines the danger of two worlds meeting, reminds us of why they so often do. Indeed the prime mover of such tales is nearly always desire: the woodcutter’s son for a fairy princess or a treasure that can only be obtained by crossing a boundary between worlds (which in turn is probably required in order to win the hand of a mortal princess). There is indeed a pull within us to seek out and reclaim alien territory for a time, both internally and externally. To cut loose, to embrace a less analytical side of yourself is to be “wild.” It is the attraction of the hunter to score some game, of the weekend campers heading to Yellowstone. The latter hope no doubt to catch some glimpse of the real deal: a deer, a coyote, an elk or a bear, hopefully from a distance. But the five day work week means that exposure to what might be considered wilderness is often out of reach and thousands of products are created to fulfill that yearning: “natural” bath products, floral prints, Tony the Tiger on that box of Frosted Flakes littering the old woman’s lawn. Nature cannot be fabricated, so it is imitated. Attributes that we physically do not possess are externalized and manufactured: the TV antennae on the house behind the girl to receive information, the diving board provides muscle power we lack, cars for extended range and guns in lieu of claws and powerful jaws. We seek greater control than we are willing to accept from the natural world: the indoor lights of the home give us sunlight whenever we wish, the drapes offer shade at our command, chlorine replaces an ecosystem. Even the plants that line the house where the wolves scrounge for food amongst our waste are edged in by a wooden border to prevent chance from gaining a foothold. Lawns are perhaps the most ubiquitous example of nature brought to heel and like the pool must be managed constantly with chemicals and machines.

But the bear, as the girl observes, is something different. Somehow he is unexpected although his reproduction would be completely familiar to her. And it’s at this point that I want to mention the piece that I found the most fascinating, because here we leave any sense of reality behind and enter completely into the world of fable. And yet in its unreality it probably explains more about us than we might like to acknowledge. A girl stands in the opening of a gate, facing a wolf picking his way through a field whose head is turned to meet her regard. Like the swimmer her posture suggests fascination but something else as well. Where the girl on the diving bored stood impassive, engrossed, this one exudes invitation as well. Her hands are clasped behind her back and her legs are crossed in a stance of arrogant self control and ease. It is a study in close scrutiny but also welcome. The fence to either side of her looks like more of a palisade, suitable to a colonial fort. And on either side of the opening a bird house is nailed to the posts. The bird houses, the wooden stakes, the gate are the price to pay for crossing over to a different world. In order to possess or befriend the wolf, it must become something it is not, meaning that the girl can never in any sense possess it as she desires. He would have to be caged, acquired, domesticated, his roaming circumscribed by barriers to his movement and his instinct. Perhaps “they” are not the ones fenced out but it is we who are fenced in now, and there was no going back once we crossed over ourselves.

Stein allows for nature to respond, in a single image where a wolf archs his back and howls at a parking lot lamppost towering outside the frame of the picture. On either side of the light is a tree where the inescapable hand of man can be seen in the posts and ropes coaxing them to their “correct” shape. Spotty bits of artificial light are seen in the distance along with a single telephone pole. The fences become broader every day.

The preceding images are part of Stein’s Domestication series and are paired in this exhibit with a number from her Halloween in Harlem series. This turns out to be more than just an ad hoc curatorial improvisation as they form a nice compliment and a kind of post script to the fables theme. The streets of Manhattan are a world away from a leafy suburb and you need to look hard to find evidence of nature, at least as we like to think of it. The subject matter of children in halloween costumes is a brilliant commentary on how we view nature, having roots deep down with our earliest proclivity to dress as an animal to gain power and identification with them. There is the boy in the sheep dog costume, carrying his trick or treat back with his initials “J.R.” markered on it for identification. The neon sign in the window beside him promises sandwiches, hamburgers, tacos and donuts. In the street in front of him a single dried up leaf is visible. Another gives at least some greater indication that the natural world hasn’t been completely obliterated from the landscape. A boy in a frog suit stands before a brick wall, and sprouting tentatively from the concrete of the sidewalk tufts of grass and weeds protrude. But as always signs that nature is managed carefully wherever it finds an inconvenient foothold are apparent. There is a kind of shadow or imprint on the wall where the creeping plants must have been removed by a weed wacker (a kind of police tape for a murder victim?). The frog also won’t be getting anywhere near water soon. His hand rests on a fire hydrant which is a potent reminder of control. My favorite I think is the costumed child dressed as Spider-Man. Superheroes are a great modern example of our desire to cross the boundaries between humanity and the natural world, and Spider-Man belongs to an extensive menagerie that includes Batman, Blue Beetle, Hawkman, Wolverine, Black Cat, Catwoman and countless others. This would-be crime fighter looks less than up to the task however, back to a subway entrance, he seems more likely to be hiding from the bustle of the streets than readying to leap into action to rescue his fellow citizens. What after all is a child’s fantasy when faced with the sprawl of chaos of a city? What is a spider set against the immensity of human civilization? Through the tiny eyeholes of his mask he views an adult world that disallows broaches of its ways and allows for fantasy as merely a substitute for when we yearn for something glimpsed in the woods beyond our fences.

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