Landscape Series

My interest in landscape stems back to early childhood, to the hills and woods surrounding our home in Pennsylvania. During my undergraduate training I studied painting and was enamored with Abstract Expressionism, but I also took photographs of old buildings and industrial landscapes that I used as source material for my work. This connection continued in graduate school, where I made a number of process-oriented pieces based on aspects of human interaction with the land. Gradually the conceptual focus of my work narrowed and I thought less about landscape as my painting practice became increasingly abstract and systematic.

Then several years ago I began making art on the computer, digital prints incorporating fragments of art historical images. Around the same time I started visiting the northern Hudson River Valley – precisely the same locale where the artists Thomas Cole and Frederic Church had lived and painted during the nineteenth century – and the experience of that particular place stimulated a renewed interest in working with landscape. Unlike my earlier explorations, however, I did not intend to use landscape as a source of inspiration. Instead I wanted to explore the very idea of American landscape painting as a historical construct.

This concept has been on my mind for several years, as I use nineteenth century American landscapes as the basis for a film course lecture on Manifest Destiny and the mythology of the American West. I know from my research that the naturalistic landscapes by artists including Cole and Church were in fact carefully constructed images – based on natural observation – that often signified implicit assumptions about the settling of the United States. As Richard Dyer writes:

The idea of a landscape, framed and perspectively organized, suggests a position from which to view the world, one that is distant and separate. Moreover, the very grasping and ordering of the land on canvas or in a photograph suggests a knowledge of it, bringing it under human control.

In my work, the act of appropriating and reordering reproductions of nineteenth century American landscape painting has symbolic meaning. By creating composite images emphasizing geometry and order but bordering on chaos, I hope to comment on the iconography of landscape as a cultural signifier. Rather than paint or photograph landscapes of today (as many artists have in recent years, both as an embrace of the ‘beauty’ of nature and as a revelation of man’s imprint – pollution, roads, sprawl, etc.), I want to infuse my work with the historical image as both didactic text and aesthetic experience. The transformation of the original source paintings, ubiquitous as reproductions of all sorts (in books, as postcards and posters), into ‘new’ works is both an homage and critique: I am attempting to create visually provocative images that inspire and, perhaps, function as landscape paintings for our postmodern culture while simultaneously implicating the hidden agendas of the original paintings.

Michael Pittari
February 2009

Landscape Statement