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Imaging Eden: Connecting Landscapes

March 31 - June 3, 2007


Landscape has often been the vehicle through which man sought to reconcile his creative energies to the inexorable forces of growth and change symbolized by nature. Formal gardens and other constructed environments see this reconciliation as their chief aim. We may be awestruck by the grandeur of the wilderness landscape and humbled by its scale, but it is in the cultivated landscape -- be it a meadow with a stand of trees, a terrace overlooking a park, a contemplative lake in a cemetery, or the satisfying intervals of trees in an urban park -- where man's nature finds respite and inspiration in the beauties of a cultivated nature. Gardens, tilled fields abundant with crops, quiet cascades and fountains-some of the most satisfying experiences of nature are landscapes that bear the mark of diligent human intervention.


(above: Lyle Gomes, San Francisco Presidio #1, 1990, gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the artist and the Halsted Gallery)


The belief that at some distant time man lived in perfect harmony with nature is an age-old one. The recounting of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis, expanded into lush vegetal description by John Milton in his poem Paradise Lost, belongs to a tradition that extends back to the writings of ancient Greece as well. For California photographer, Lyle Gomes, this yearning for a harmonious but constructed landscape can be found in disparate sites, sites that are linked by a sort of philosophical genealogy, an intuition of which launched Gomes on a sixteen-year artistic exploration:

In the spring of 1989, I was drawn to the San Francisco Presidio forest by its unusual blend of art and nature. Intellectual curiosity, as to how and why this blend occurred, led me to the fertile realm of landscape history and ideology. A place led me to ideas and those ideas, in turn, led me to other places to direct my camera. Imagining Eden: Connecting Landscapes is a photographic study of diverse landscapes, in regard to function, that trace back to a common seed. In a sense, landscapes are connected by a common DNA.

As Gomes goes on to say, these landscapes have elements and features idealized in the writings of Sappho, Apollonius, and Virgil, and in the imagined Golden Age, such as meadows with forests and water features. These ideal landscapes comprise, in Gomes's work, the serene settings of parks, cemeteries, and even golf courses.

The common root of landscapes representing harmony between nature and human existence is the a-temporal idea of a locus amoenus -- a pleasant place.

Although the sites Gomes depicts are scattered across America and Europe, he has sought -- and found -- a unifying vision that creates a coherent and integrated sense of place. The severely horizontal format, often without a horizon line to divide the sky from the earth, emphasizes the principal contours of landscape. Another way in which the photographs are united is through the kind of light and time of day that Gomes employs. Eschewing the sharp contrasts of light and dark that give many landscapes their sense of drama, Gomes shoots his landscapes in fog, at dawn, and under similar conditions that minimize contrasts and deep shadows. The resulting images focus on the silvery effects of the middle range of tonal values. Within this middle range, a broad but subtle variation allows for both sharp focus on the details of the foliage and trees and also a soft, elegiac lyricism. This visual unity applies to landscapes of very different natures: the Poet's Walk in Central Park, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rousham Park, and Chatsworth in England, villas in Italy, and the original inspiration for the series, the Presidio in San Francisco. In each of these settings the human presence is inescapable, but this presence is implied and not depicted; these are landscapes that have been shaped by others but that await our presence. Whether privately held or designed for the public, these sites were created for reflection, contemplation, and renewal. The idea of a place where working people can enjoy the pleasures of landscape within the urban setting lies behind the design of Central Park and most subsequent parks in large cities. Mount Auburn, America's first garden cemetery, represented a new way of honoring the dead, combining idealized naturalistic terrain, classical monuments, and planned gardens. As contemporary observer Jacob Bigelow said when the cemetery was created in 1831,

No place in the environs of our city will possess stronger attractions to the visitor . . . [T]he human heart . . . seeks consolation in rearing emblems and monuments . . . This can be fitly done, not in the tumultuous and harassing din of cities,but amidst the quiet verdure of the field under the broad and cheerful light of heaven . . .

In each of these sites, Gomes does not portray the famous or iconic view of the landscape; he will often seek out the unnoticed corner that brings together that balance of man's organizing imagination and nature's rampant energies. The most recent genre of landscape to wed the desire for Eden to a physical landscape is that of golf courses. Carefully groomed, although ostensibly "natural" in their settings, golf courses offer one of the most seemingly oblique references to the Edenic origins of the cultivated landscape, but certainly one of the most popular and engaging to modern audiences. Recent debates about land use bring into question the sequestration of otherwise useable land by golf course construction, which consumes large tracts of land each year. With this question comes the attendant issues of fertilizer runoff and other ills associated with a highly managed or manipulated natural site.

Whatever the apparent ecological costs of creating or sustaining a landscape perfectly poised between the humanly constructed and untrammeled natural energies, Gomes's serene and evocative landscapes perfectly capture the qualities shared among these disparate sites. Imagining Eden beckons us to reflect on an elusive stasis of mind and nature, one in which the delectation of the Edenic constructed landscape leaves the viewer with a profound sense of completion within the natural world.

-- gallery guide essay by Carole McNamara, Senior Curator of Western Art


About the exhibition

This project represents a long-term study of idealized human-made landscapes by California-based artist Lyle Gomes. Created over a 16-year period, Gomes's images of parks, golf courses, gardens, and garden cemeteries explore the enduring human impulse to shape the landscape and to strive for a harmonious balance between humankind and nature. Gomes's meditative horizontal-format photographs examine this intermingling of constructed features with the felicitous "accidents" of natural forms.

Imagining Eden: Connecting Landscapes is made possible by Ford Motor Company Fund, as part of its support of UMMA's 2006-07 season. Additional support for this exhibition has been provided by the University of Michigan's Office of the President, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, Comerica Bank, Michigan Radio, the W. Hawkins Ferry Fund, the Doris Sloan Memorial Fund, and the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, and Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.


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