Landscape Theory: How we see, paper #2

Landscape Theory-How and what we see!

Paper Number Two

April 2017 


Dave Holmander

This paper continues to build upon landscape theory begun in paper number one. Whereas the first paper discussed more foundational element relative to the development and social implication of land scape in western civilization pursuant to a visual synthesis here we focus specificity of place and engineered configuration and the visual qualities of seeing and the illusion of perception as it is impacted by social variables and changing cultural norms.

As a visual artist is it enough simply to paint or photograph a certain place? Now for a moment add in conceptual and/or abstraction to the illusion? It starts to get complicated very fast. For some artist, it may be satisfying enough to go no further.  However, for the more deliberative anything less than a thorough examination of place, how it came to its current configuration, the resultant historical and social uses cobbled together make for more discerning and impactful conveyance of the visual influence and interpretation.

Though the result for the artist is the visual image others will see, his/her world view of reconciliation of the final work is much larger and must be defined by more than the image. Landscape in more broadly defined term is determined social activity and how its historicity has been preserved by what others have written. This therein requires rightly or wrongly interpretation of past and current activity respective of place and culture.

How art begins

Roy B. Zuck in Interpretation makes the following observation because culture effectively alters landscape.  “culture includes what people think and believe, say, do and make” and “includes their beliefs, forms of communication, customs and practices, material objects such as tools, dwelling, weapons” Additionally, it involves “Religion, politics, war, … agriculture, architecture, … and the geography of where one lives and travel”. (79) Why begin here? Because though Zuck speak to interpretation of the holy scriptures and the importance of contextualizing past culture to modern society the literary critique of the past is significant when we understand much of the historic landscape in western culture is derived from the social narrative and interpreted by artist and designer of any period. In iconography of landscape Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels cite Erwin Panofsky argument which is to suggest what is created is the resultant interpretation of a narrative imaging or in layman’s terms, picture words. “That designer of gothic cathedrals began to conceive of the forms they shaped, not so much in terms of isolated solids as in terms of a comprehensive picture space, just as contemporary Church

Notre Dame Paris

Norte Dame in Paris 1180 CE (A.D.)

Fathers were conceiving of their textual apologetics as tightly articulated summae … (such) structure … could be read off from the table of its contents and textual subdivisions”. In the same manner, various dissections of the cathedral design could thus be read “as a mode of literary representation, a treatise in a stone, an architectural scholasticism”. (3) It is here one might then suggest that creativity/intentionality in the landscape geographically, architecturally, and ultimately visually that a narration implicated by social consciousness and interpretation must first find its place for artistic expression to evolve.

Symbolism of Art

In Encounters with American Ethnic Cultures edited by Kibride, Goodale, and Ameisen Jennifer Krier speaks to the subject of art and cultural identity. Simply put every social/cultural group sub-group etc. has some ideocratic expression which manifest itself musically, literarily, performatively or visually. In her research of Ukrainian-American culture folk art is symbolic of ethnicity. Thus, to arrive at the correct understanding of their social mores it is necessary to grasp the psychology and semiotics of the people group. Such then it must be said that every culture has a system germane to self-identity and thus will be reflected in some expression of art. For the contemporary artist, he/she must set aside their own by typical of many in the west. Here Krier asserts Clifford Geertz conclusion “Most scholars he contends, try to study art in their own Western-value terms of formal properties, symbolic content, affective values, or stylistic features; this leads not to an understanding of the role of art in a culture but to an externalized conception of the phenomenon” (135)

Ukrianian egg art

Ukrainians are noted for their Easter Egg Folk Art

In her research Krier considered the very large Ukrainian population living in Philadelphia. She understood the importance of being specific to place which is evidenced in her conclusions. Thus, she states, “(1) Art has social meaning and works to communicate or articulate, through symbols, social experience; (2) Ethnicity is, in some context … self-ascribed cultural identity that serves to distinguish an individual or group of individuals from others and thus creates a dichotomy between members and non-members and (3) Ukrainian-Americans have a strong sense of ethnic identity … a synthesis of these ideas … represented in … hypothesis … that practice of traditional art is a manifestation and reinforcement of ethnic identity” (136). The obvious conclusion and take away for the landscape artist or designer specifically is not to underscore importance of socialization and place both in the narrative and visual context but it is also a reflection of norms and nuances in society.

Taking a Good Look

The title suggests there is more to seeing in visual images than what is supposed.  It has long been known that a good storyteller portrays in words mental images of the mind to the listener. Thus, it is not a very big leap when one then suggest there is a connection of between the psychoanalysis of Freud, visually of the image and primary articulation. Historically, it can be said the painted works of pre-twenty centuries require no father interpretation whereas the norms of interpretation seemed to be established and universal.  For example, John Berger has remarked “images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent”. (10) He bases this on an earlier comment. “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe”. (8) Seeing then as Freud suggest perhaps the most rudimentary functions of human conceptuality. We see first before we speak or any other social function, we learn to speak and walk eventually but seeing is forever implanting a human memory historicity which will ever be a foundational template for all that follows.

With respect to visual images i.e.: painting, the context is very narrow. Only the wealthy and church in western society could afford to commission work thus what was offered reflected a class status most often portraitures, possessions and pastoral landscape.  The alternative was the overtly religious motifs implicit of the divine supernatural which bring us back to Freud.  Artist where therefore completely reliant on a personal interpretation of the biblical narrative for which there was no actual image from which to create an imagine or a replication. This brings us full circle to the word picture and the cultural bias from which no farther refinement of the “mystification” (21) is required. These visual rendering were therefore not only completely illusionary but accentuate the artist deliberate and inescapable subjectivity (psychosis: inability to evaluate reality objectively).


Virgin and Child, 4th century, Rome

The single deviation from the status quote is on occasion probably because an artist had no active commission they would venture in the commonality of peasant class society and paint their daily routine engaged in work or play.  This example brings us to the whole point of seeing what we paint and what the viewer perceives.  In Frans Hals 1580 – 1666 double paintings of Regents (Regentesses) of the Old Men’s House, Hal is dependent of public welfare to get through the winter month and paints these two pieces of the folk whom he is dependent upon for his charity.  Thus, it is unknown if he paints into the work his expression of bitterness and strife upon the faces of his subject with smerky smiles dually because he needs their benevolence yet despise them as the overseers or inspire of his personal circumstances. From the vantage point of the 21st century this is unknowable.

It is the invention of photography which both changes and enlightens visual art forever. Whereas, in painting, printmaking etc. it is the artist interpretation and skill replicating an image captured in time.  It is and can never be anything other than such thus characterized as an illusion. Photograph on the other hand is a mechanical representation of that exact moment in time and space able to be reproduced numerous times limited only by the skill of processing the negative, lighting and various other manipulations of value to create different moods and effects, but the lines and shape remain constant. Thus, in a convoluted way photography set painting free to explore new and creative images because it no longer need to serve as a vehicle/medium in the preservation of the historical moment no matter how imperfect they were.


Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House, Franz Hals


Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, Franz Hals


Image p 17 Ways of Seeing, John Berger

  Engineered Landscape

Antiquities is only part of seeing, it must be said in a sense all-seeing of all that is seen is looking to the past. Seeing of the presence is but for the flicker of the moment. Futuristic seeing is limited only by the lack of imagination. Thus, for the visual artist one only needs to look at anything or any direction or any perception and the visual experience becomes obvious.

In terms of landscape, engineered landscape likewise we view it both literally and conceptually three dimensionally. However, for this discussion with a very narrow focus only historical perception of landscape and a singular example is considered.

Dennis Cosgrove in The Iconography of Landscape regarding Mother Nature suggest the following. “This inter-dependence of nature science, theology, and art … (is) … reflected in architecture”. (20)  Specifically, he is speaking about geography in its natural setting. How this plays out may or not be intentional but implied most assuredly an engineering accommodation of the natural environment to the perceived need in design and functional respective to creative and social utility.

For an example of this concept I refer to Engineering Mountain Landscapes by Scheiber and Zedeno.  It is Maria N. Zedeno and her chapter 2 Central Places in the Backcountry who connect the social necessity to survive and attain a quality of livelihood among Blackfeet indigenous American Indians and their association with Beaver Lake encampment.

In her research, there is no question that the locality of place became very important to the Blackfeet. The uniqueness of the terrain with resultant location of water source, hunting camps, other food sources like paint and root gathering areas, salt licks frequented by wildlife, easy access to these within the specific region, and religious sites, etc. Thus, they set about designing their encampment with very specific landscape intentionality.

Beaver Lake (1)

Though her research specific may be dubbed archaeological in nature the application of the work parallel to my rail/trail project is direct in its origin. “By integrating the concepts of place

centrality and social investment, we elucidate how Blackfeet hunters engaged and modified Beaver Lake in the negotiation of their reservation-era identity, resulting in a reprioritized cultural geography.” (7). Additionally, “principal place fulfills a specific range of human needs … (and) to its topology or location relative to other places … in terms of factors that makes a place central its spatial breath, and its temporal depth” (8). Thus, we can safely say that much of the visual portion of her research focused on the evidence to its historical past.

Therefore, in a parallel manner my rail/trail (originally, Northern Rail Trail) project though momentously change and redirected began much as an examination of engineered landscape and what could be visibly observed.

Mile 11b NRT Turntable Franklyn

Oil on canvas, Dave Holmander 2016

Mile 10a NRT Old Mill Frankyn

Oil on canvas, Dave Holmander 2016

 Being one of New Hampshire’s earliest and longest railroads running 69.9 miles between Concord and White River Junction, Vermont. In it’s onset three (3) different route conceived a southerly shorter and a more northerly without grade route proposed, but then the more middle route selected a comprised route based on grade and distance.

Mile 08b NRT Gerrish Depoy

Oil on canvas, Dave Holmander 2015

Today functioning as recreated purpose use recreational trail for cyclist, walkers and cross country skiers. It would be difficult not to considered it’s past, present and future use and the impact of landscape engineering and design codifying social and environmental implications.

Site Specific Controversy

Without doubt one could make the argument that the rail/trail in its originality could be a variant form of site-specific art and locational identity as Miwon Kwon has perhaps coined. However, given the scale of such a project and intentionality which must be called into question I suggest that this is not what’s in mind in One Place After Another.

While on the one hand this conversation is about site-specific art, I believe it may address or open for a discussion a larger issue pertaining to all art.

Briefly, let me try and summaries a few of the finding the book offers.

Since its emergence in the late 1960’s site-specific art has undergone several iterations and is outline in detail without bias in the book.

In its base origin, germaine to its locality irrespective natural or man-made but adapted to a specific environment.

She proports, in her introduction, “site-determined, site-oriented, site-referenced, site-conscious, site-responsive and site-related.  These are some additional terms that have emerged in recent years among many artist and critics to account for various permutations of site-specific art”. It calls to question the relationship of the actual work created and its relationship to its surround. In site-specific art’s conception, the environmental context was critical to the success for the work as in Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970 on the campus of Kent State University.


However, it became clear to all but “idealist hermeticities” (13) that this model of site-specific art could not be sustained because of it immovability. Such as in the words of Richard Serra’s dictum. “to remove the work is to destroy the work”.  Other anchor to site-specific work where sculptures work placed among city-scape utilizing the light and shadows projected from building capturing certain kind of reflective value.

Some site-specific art was never meant to last, however the defining moment for site-specific art (reference to public art) created in one place was asked to be viewed in another place at great distance. The drive behind this was “museum culture and the art market” (33) Since the scale of this would be too costly or logistically improvable to move the only practical solution was to recreate the same work and visual impact in another location from drawing sketches and photos. And on occasion the artist who envisioned the work would not even be present.

Herein, this brings into question what is the actual art we create.  Just like the camera changed painting, a redefining of artist and their work specific to site-specific art forces a redefine (clarity) not only about site art but all art on a broader scale.

I believe we once again could draw a parallel here regarding conceptual art. Since we have concluded that conceptual art for the visual art in painting, prints and photograph is primarily about the idea, we then may conclude that site specific art isn’t about the actual object but the artist/creator’s conception and its visual impact on the viewer.  The practicality of much site-specific art, specifically public art will require much hands on by others to accomplish the project.

I have largely glossed over the material presented by Kwon because I want to convey that singular point and its ultimate connection to conceptual art. There is much social context to public art and how it defines or fits a community. Also, questions of suitability and identity to specific space need to be addressed. To the larger point in her work site specific art need to reflect a commonality both in its environmental setting and the community it serves else it is unsuccessful. Thus, we may safely conclude even if we are doing create site-specific art there is much we can learn from it about ourselves and the people with whom it’s is attached.


There is an old adage seeing is believing. There are however many ways to see. We may see with our eye, but also with or ears and hand. If you smell a roast cooking in the oven, does it bring back a memory for a once upon time family, a visual image embeds forever?

“Only those cultural practices that have this relational sensibility can turn local encounter into long-term commitments and transformative passing intimacies into indelible, unretractable social marks – so that the sequence of sites that we inhabit in our lives’ traversal does not become genericized into an undifferentiated serialization, one place after another” (166). So, it is with my rail/trail conceptual rendering of place I wish to accomplish.

Work Cited

Zuck, Roy B. Interpretation, Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1991. Print

Ammwe, Manuel, Achim Hochdorfer and David Joselit. Painting 2.0, Expression in the information Age. Munich: Museum Brandhorst, Muumak, 2016, Print.

Atkins, Robert. Art Speak, 3rd edition, A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to present. New York:  Abbeville Press, 2013, Print.

Bayles, David, and Ted Orland. Art & Fear, Observations …(and)… Art making.  Santa Cruz:  The Image Continuum, 2001, Print.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972, Print.

Christopouls, George A. The Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Athens: Ekdotike Hellados S.A., 2003, Print.

Cosgrove, Dennis E. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, Print.

Cosgrove, Dennis and Stephen Danils. The iconography of landscape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, Print.

DeLue, Rachael Ziady and James Elkins. Landscape Theory, (The Art Seminar).   New York: Routledge, 2008, Print.

Elkins, James. On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. New York:  Routledge, 2004, Print.

Elkins, James. What Painting Is. New York: Routledge, 1999, Print.

Kagan, Jerome and Ernest Havemann. Psychology: An Introduction, Second Edition.   New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1968, Print.

Kilbride, Phillip L., Jane C. Goodale and Elizabeth R. Ameisen.  Encounters with American Ethic Cultures, Tucaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990, Print.

Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004, Print.

Livingston, Jane. The Art of Richard Diebenkorn. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997, Print.

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club, A Story of Ideas in America. New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, Print.

Scheiber, Laura L. and Maria Nieves Zedeno. Engineering Mountain Landscapes, (An Anthropology of Social Investment). Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2015, Print.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Prentice Hall, Inc., and Harry N. Adams., 1995,

Print.Zuck, Roy B. Interpretation, Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991. Print

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