Text by Aaron Collins
With 2020 continuing to hurl stumbling blocks our way — from a pandemic to climate instability, economic collapse to civil unrest — what is art’s role anymore? What is art’s capacity to herald and enlighten when such copious bad news abounds and we might prefer just to look away?
Given the easy temptations of escapism, how can contemporary artists continue to shape human thought and experience on substantial matters when galleries cannot open to the public without fear of public health consequences? Like the proverbial tree falling in a forest, if an art exhibition is mounted amid a public coronavirus shutdown, does anyone hear or see?
While it may be unreasonable to expect today’s contemporary artists to reflect the zeitgeist of our current cultural moment in similar fashion as 1960s’ artists did in that turbulent and heavily politicized age, Visalia-based artist and printmaker Matthew Rangel’s approach has been to double down on his well-trodden landscape terrain as he hews to his own long-established vision. Nature may be beleaguered, but it also offers suitable respite as bedrock and source material.
In Matthew Rangel: Layers of Place on exhibit at Arts Visalia through August (as the coronavirus gods permit), Rangel draws ever more deeply upon his unwavering and readily identifiable visual vocabulary, beckoning viewers much like a modern day John Muir to seek solace in nature, reveling in its austere beauties, astounding scale and topo-graphical brutality.
What makes the current work more interesting is his incorporation of art-making strategies from contemporary and Modern predecessors from luminaries Ed Ruscha to Maya Lin, with a little Leonardo DaVinci thrown in for historical heft befitting the grandness of his chosen subject, the Sierra Nevada.
Akin to Ruscha’s notable photographic art book “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966), presented contiguously with an accordion fold, in Rangel’s six-panel “Sierra Nevada Codex” (2015; etching and fine art lithography), he toys with the question “What if I were to make a continuous sequential representation of something so vast as one of the earth’s major mountain ranges?” This is art to geek out on.
Like Lin’s river series, where she turned the liquid of America’s rivers into solid bronze using GPS data, Rangel converts what is incomprehensibly vast yet singularly unseen into something visually digestible. His large-scale “Tulare Lake” (2015; digital pigment print on Japanese Azuka kozo paper) performs a similarly revelatory function with regard to the lake’s historic ecosystem vanishing act. “Kaweah Flume, Middle Fork” (2010; fine art lithograph on Rives BFK paper) hints that human-scale efforts to control nature might not quite be up to the task.
Like those contemporary greats in whose conceptual company he finds himself, Rangel is decidedly trawling the familiar artistic waters where art’s usually cliched tropes of beauty and standard artistic fare are typically plied. Instead, he has created works that are complex, layered meditations on a personal experience of nature’s magnificence. In contrast to the occasional grandiosities of an Albert Bierstadt or Ansel Adams, Rangel avoids gilding the Sierra’s magnificence and the perils of those artists’ attempts to one-up the range’s obvious allure. Using various elements such as journalistic notation, anecdotal fragments and physical observation placed on gridded carto-graphic underpinnings, these works serve as both documentary proof of his direct experiences and countervalence for Bierstadt’s and Adams’ more fanciful instincts, and even Rangel’s own self-confessed Romanticist leanings. “These pieces serve as a kind of proof that I have invested my physical agency in these landscapes,” he said.
“The form my art takes derives from my perception of my surrounding environment and how I’ve made some connection to that as a human being from this area and as an artist. Reflecting that layered approach is the way I perceive the world when I experience it. I subscribe to the 19th century Romantic landscape. I love observing features in the landscape and giving them my devotion and having a spiritual moment. I totally subscribe to that. But that’s not all I feel I can say about it. I want to research it, go there and add other layers, entry points — layers of place,” he said.
As much as Rangel’s work reflects his direct observation of the landscape, he also makes use of digital tools. Photographs, maps and drawings all must be digitized, taking the process from analog to digital and back to old-tech analog of fine art lithography printmaking processes. “Transference between analog and digital can be smooth or clunky and at times those things work against each other. But that is a major way I mitigate the complications in design and layout of my work,” he said.
Rangel, a COS art professor, traces one important “aha” moment to a visit to the Phoenix Art Museum’s DaVinci exhibition. “I’m interested in Leonardo. He’s very important to how we perceive things through drawing in Western culture. But he is also important because he started dialogue in other realism like ecology. His entry point was drawing. His curiosity led him to do his own self-provoked and motivated research about the landscape, using firsthand direct observation, laying out for someone to interpret and read it. So when humans started into ecology, it goes back to him,” Rangel said.
Whereas Thomas Cole’s historical landscape paintings pointed to America’s “manifest destiny,” Rangel’s work suggests that the value of the journey’s real end point is much more experientially derived and personally determined, if only one has the requisite adventuresome spirit needed to explore the remote and often treacherous locations. “Amie got quarter size blisters on her heels” is typical fair game for Rangel’s quotidian field notes, and — opposite of Cole — he intimates no sweeping promises, in exchange for the suffering, that ardent seekers might lay claim to lands that aren’t theirs.
“I hope this layered approach to visual graphics language points a way in how we can experience the landscape, how we use it, designate its use, how we connect with it, whether we will protect it or destroy it. I just want to get people to think about it.” And in taking steps toward fulfilling that mission, Rangel has succeeded.