The M Blog
The M Blog is an online space for us and for you — artists, museum staff and curators, guest writers, and community contributors — to discuss issues and ideas related to the many experiences of being American today.
Search / Boundaries: Finding the Great Outdoors in Storage
Essay by Moheb Soliman, Artist Takeover resident, March 2019
My time at the M was, in part, a foray into the deep/back end of Minnesota Museum of American Art’s collection, by way of a wonderfully finicky database as well as on-site in a secret remote storage warehouse. I was mostly looking at landscapes for anything Great Lakes related, but more broadly interested in the overlapping remove from, management of, and desire for wilderness that we experience in our time. However compromised, however indifferent to us, we ceaselessly seek out and project onto the non-human living world as a blank, if not verdant, canvas, with harmonies, dreams, fears, limits.
As most physical encounters with nature occur under the very careful direction of public planners and parks services, so, too, is our aesthetic encounter with it thoroughly mediated by professionals and institutions. An individual’s painstaking landscape painting gives us captivating access to nature, one intimate step back from it. But behind that step are countless museums and administrators organizing and programming collections and shows; behind them are manifold databases, storage facilities, and related infrastructure. For me, this was a look into this one system of many that holds nature in a frame for us to revel in.
And in dwelling in that system, there was also seeing how I followed suit with its protocols towards my own romance with nature—how the eclectic set of artworks I dug up, capturing something of my precious Great Lakes, could collect to give me a satisfaction of the “first order,” always fleeting in the face of the real, live thing—needing rendering. Could I find the great outdoors in storage, or just the capture of its capture? What does the search do in this context for the unending pursuit? Perhaps you get somewhere uncannily new with the time-honored landscape painting and nature photography, when you’re so far in the weeds/on the ground of databases and storage. Maybe there’s an awakening that comes with the dream of escaping into sublime canvases, when you get to climb so deep into their scaffold that you see neither forest nor tree, but just lists of colors and strokes and provenance.
I didn’t exactly find what I set out to: a trove of pan-regional landscapes, art of Minnesota’s iconic Superior leading to works crisscrossing and tying together this one giant water body as the region’s industry and migration always have. But it was the lack I found, only after getting so close up to the system, that allowed me to vividly make up what I wanted—not just ephemeral art, but enduring bureaucracy. Lake of lakes. Landscape of all landscapes. This double connotation of the desire for “the one ultimate” and yet “the sum of all” (like Superior, and Great Lakes) struck me late in the residency, and set me on course to an odd culminating project that I hope manages to embody much of the ideas touched on here. Please do tune into a larger presentation of my time and work at the Mon July 11 that will explore that more. For now, here are three takes from finding, analyzing, and aggregating all Great Lakes-related artwork in the M’s collection, a glimpse into art processing.
1 > RECORD QUERY
2 > RECORD CAPTURE
3 > RECORD DESCRIPTION
Abstract drawing with orange, brown, blue, and green ink on paper. [Blank] [Artist omitted]’s collage is composed of weathered wood, found on the shores of [Great Lake omitted], that the artist pieced together to create an abstract landscape. [Blank] The work shows a view of the [Great Lakes city omitted] harbor with a line of houses in the foreground that lead into the distance and become surrounded by the lake. [Blank] The majority of the work is painted in blues, with several small patches of yellows and greens grouped near the bottom edge. The image could represent an overhead view of a coastline. [Blank] Near the top edge lies [Artist omitted]’s signature horizon line, a thin dark green line between the orange and purple layers of paint. [Blank] The foreground is comprised of rocks of various sizes, wet and gleaming from the lake. The sun is low in the sky and in the distance the water and sky converge. [Blank] A horizon line is visible a quarter of the way down from the top, while a light blue line is drawn across the middle of the work, amidst a sea of purple. [Blank] Above this line the painting is colored with blues and greens, while varying blocks of purple, blue and red fill the bottom portion of the work. [Blank] The church is located on the bank of a body of water. The foreground of the print is an open grassy area. There are trees in the background, behind the church. [Blank] A small road leads up to the houses. A tall pole (electrical?) extends in foreground right. [Blank] The upper half of the painting is colored red, while bands of dark blue, red, and purple form a horizontal strip across the canvas, about a quarter of the way from the top. The lower portion of the work is filled with wavy patches of pink, green, and orange. [Blank] The areas of color are separated with a horizon line. [Blank] In the foreground are rock formations and to the right is ice formation over the rocks from the lake. [Blank] The top half surrounding a large rock is lighter and foggier. [Blank] In the center of the work, a clump of grass rests in the middle of a frozen stream between two spotted rocks. number 3 of 30 The sky is blue with a perfect yellow circle as the sun at the top. The land is painted in shades of red and in the foreground is a tilted tree with red and maroon leaves. A red flower bush takes up the left side. [Blank] The stem of the tree is twisted, while the branches and leaves take up the upper left corner of the work. Attributed to [Artist omitted], 19th century Similar to the other three in the series, the work is colored with a minimal palette of muted red, orange, and purple and has a horizon line drawn a quarter of the way down from the top. Number 5 of 30 Below this horizon line, in the middle of the pastel, is a thick line of bright orange. Number 1 of 30