CIVILIZATIONS come and go, but the natural world spirals onward in its essential cycles of life, death, and rebirth as it has since long before mankind took notice of it and began making art of it.
Tanya Marcuse settled into the Hudson Valley many years ago, where tending her garden and observing the surrounding orchards fade in and out of bloom and bounty led her to notice the fecundity and decay of nature, and perhaps inevitably, given more than 30 years of conjuring conceptual photographic series, she has been working on a series of related projects: straightforward black-and-white portraits of neighboring fruit trees in various seasonal stages (“Fruitless”), color images of fruit rotting on the ground below (“Fallen”), and, finally, accretions of patiently scavenged organic matter that she arranges into large-scale, panoramic fields (“Woven”). This most recent series lures the viewer into an immersive thicket of flora and micro-fauna. Marcuse has no trouble persuading us that these works are actually inspired by the rich tapestries she has closely studied in Europe and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Apart from being, overall, a close observation and quiet celebration of the cycles of life, Marcuse’s lush, cornucopian pictures trigger many layers of associations, with everything from literature and mythology to art history, especially the history of still life and 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings. One can just as clearly see the all-over gestural webs of Jackson Pollock at one moment, or Biblical allusions that stretch beyond the Garden of Eden, or Nordic fairy tales and the dense woodsy undergrowth that suggests their melancholy settings, or lost-in-the-woods motifs that range from the Brothers Grimm to Maurice Sendak to J. R. R. Tolkien. They also may put a viewer in mind of traditional, if besieged, notions of femininity (flowers, herbal scents, and gathered food), domesticity, husbandry, harvest ritual, fertility (though Marcuse thinks of it more in terms of the fertility of a neutral nature, symbolically unlinking women from the natural loop of yield and decay), and pagan reverence for earthy matters.
The “Woven” series also contains within it, by being both staged and desultory, the dialectic between natural and constructed environment, and yes, intimations of the menace of climate change. Marcuse plays with sense of place, and context, by eliminating any horizon line and offering instead a map-like aerial perspective that blurs the border between micro- and macrocosm, specific and universal. One cannot miss that throughout the series there is a taut, expressive balance between wildness and order, chance and deliberation — itself echoing many notable artistic feats of the past. Once the mind calms down, though, it’s the sheer effusive beauty of Marcuse’s creations, with the ingredients of creation, that emerges and ravishes. Their scale also, she admits, gives her some sense of empowerment — serious real estate in the toughening negotiations of contemporary art.
Marcuse’s journey as a photographer has taken a long and winding path. While a young and “messed up” early college student at Simon’s Rock (of Bard), Marcuse fell into a photography course, which proved “an instantaneous love at first contact.” Avidly embracing the relatively mechanical discipline of taking pictures, she says, set her on an intellectual quest that always found her wrestling with the interweaving of life and death. Highly emotional by nature, she found the medium’s “outward-looking nature, built-in restraint, and mediation between inside and outside” to be irresistible, and the only choice for her life’s vocation. Strongly drawn to the darker side of photographers such as Diane Arbus, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and Jerome Liebling, Marcuse was especially affected by Arbus’s “cold, clinical will to look and stare and harness photography’s descriptive power so keenly and beautifully, but also with so much passion, so much heat.”
Marcuse would take as subjects the slaughtering of meat at a nearby butcher shop while living in small-town Pennsylvania; the quirky religious visions of a lonely little girl living in Maine; the “primitive” inhabitants of a tiny remote village in Venezuela (where she lived in harsh conditions for a year in a hut with her then-boyfriend); wax anatomical models in Italy and Austria; and the historic armor and undergarments she found in museums — this last series, “Undergarments and Armor,” was part of a 15-year period focused on the body and the archive.
In corsets, crinoline hoops, farthingales, and the like, she captured “sculptures of the body that outlast the wearer” in tiny black-and-white platinum palladium prints. Her signature quest, images that are both sensual and conceptual, appears throughout her work.
To me, it was a sort of vanitas project, about these garments that outlast our bodies and end up in some archive at the Met with a little tag on it … I was really interested in the strange way our institutions take these things from our closets and our personal effects and they become part of a cultural archive.
Who’d have predicted that from this obsession with the dusty hoard of museums, Marcuse would arrive at her own enchanted garden?