If landscape painting has historically functioned, in the words of W.J.T. Mitchell, as “the ‘dreamwork’ of imperialism,” a medium through which aspirations toward geopolitical domination are revealed, then the exquisitely rendered locales of first-person-shooter video games dramatically extend the scope of this “dreamwork” into the digital age. This, at least, appears to be the thesis of Mark Tribe’s recent exhibition “Rare Earth.” The show comprised a series of large-scale pigment prints derived from the scenery of contemporary video games as well as a digital video of an idyllic landscape, shot in upstate New York.
Reminiscent of Asher B. Durand’s studies of the Catskills and Adirondacks, Tribe’s images of lush forests and craggy mountaintops fit squarely within the picturesque tradition. The scenes are at once wild and strangely domesticated, teeming with natural splendor yet too tame to call forth reveries of the sublime. The dapples of sunshine raining down from a woodland canopy in Gas Springs (2012) and the mighty granite peak rising in the hazy distance in Sawtooth Mountain (2012) seem too exemplary to be real-and they are.
These vistas speak to a fantasy of possession perhaps best summarized by Thomas Cole, whose words form the prologue to a book on the Hudson River School that was available in Momenta’s reading room. The “surpassing interest” of the American landscape to its inhabitant, proclaims Cole, is a result of it being “his own land; its beauty, its sublimity-all are his.” In Cole’s work, the effect of such a statement is illustrated by a painting like Autumn Twilight, View of Corway Peak (1834), in which a Native American gliding placidly along in his small canoe seems as integral to the tableau as the snaking bark of a split birch tree in the painting’s foreground. Tribe’s work at once invokes and dissolves this insidious daydream of Manifest Destiny, in which the viewer lays claim to all he beholds. The realization that what one is seeing is just so many pixels coincides with an opportunity to reflect upon the triumphalism implicit even in seemingly innocuous depictions of natural beauty.
Primed by the series of prints, one was liable to take the video on display in the rear room as yet another image drawn from a combat simulation-which, in a manner of speaking, it was. Birdsall 5
(2012) depicts an upstate New York landscape of evergreens and fall foliage foregrounded by yellow grass undulating so subtly that it is almost a shock to realize one is viewing a motion picture. More jarring is to read in the press release that those lush acres are in fact a militia training ground. Filmed in a more remote region of their state than New York City dwellers generally deign to venture to, this piece manages to capture the apprehensiveness that prevents many of this country’s urbanites from fully luxuriating in the charms of “their” native land: the vague sense that out there in this impossibly beautiful landscape are real Americans.
Photo: Mark Tribe: Gas Springs, 2012, pigment print, 44 by 69 inches; at Momenta Art.