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Earth-Mapping: Artists Reshaping Landscape

by Edward S. Casey
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2005
256 pp., illus. 31 b/w, 32 col. Trade, $83.95; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 0-8166-4332-6; ISBN: 0-8166-4333-4.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


by Edward S. Casey is a major work investigating both critically and philosophically the way artists have incorporated earth into their creations. Earth is to be understood in the broadest possible sense. Literally, as in rocks and clay used as the medium of the work, in natural outdoor settings. Earthy materials retrieved from quarries, deserts and so on and used solely or as mixed media in studio created pieces. Metaphorically as representations of earth features in landscape and abstract style paintings and sculptures. The central theme of the book concerns mapping techniques used by artists to explore our relationship to earth, place, and space. As with earth, mapping is used by Casey in ways that transcend our conventional understanding of maps as images or devices to help us get from point A to point B.

I remember years ago a book I read suggesting that maps could function as images to evoke dreams. We gaze at the coloured marks on the flat paper surface, and our imagination takes over, wondering what such and such a town is like, what adventures we’ll have if we go this way rather than that, and we develop three dimensional images of features which are described in deceptively simple words. The earth-mapped artworks in this book have a similar affect, though at much deeper and more complex levels.

This book presents a detailed and scholarly investigation and is arguably one of the most definitive works published on this subject. It is well illustrated with both colour plates and black & white photographs. There is a Prologue and Epilogue, together with a good Index and an extensively detailed notation of each chapter. The book is divided into two parts. Part One–Earth Works that Map and Part Two–Mapping The Landscape In Paintings. The first part concentrates on the "earth art" of four artists: Robert Smithson, Margot McLean, Sandy Gellis, and Michelle Stuart. Smithson, perhaps best known for his earth-art-work Spiral Jetty, was the modern pioneer of this type of work including its conceptual basis. This selection of artists is small enough to allow detailed analysis and broad enough to show the different approaches of artists engaged in this often, site specific, approach to mapping the earth. Other artists relevant to the investigation are mentioned briefly and special attention is paid to earth-mapping antecedents, which highlights Casey’s extensive knowledge of art history.

Part Two concentrates again on a small selection of artists: Eve Ingalls, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn, Willem de Kooning, and Dan Rice. The appearance of the earth-landscape-mapped paintings of these artists is very well known, so a description here is not necessary. What Casey has achieved, though, is a rich, detailed–perhaps slightly fresh take–regarding these works, particularly from a philosophical perspective. "My primary concern in this volume is with certain contemporary artists who have displayed a special sensitivity to novel forms of marriage between mapping and landscape painting (and other assembled or constructed works)" (p. xix).

Casey’s project has been to "rethink art as a form of mapping" (p. xi). This approach has resulted in numerous published works, including Representing Place: Landscape Painting and Maps and The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. The fourth in his series of studies on the importance of place in people’s lives is this volume, Earth-Mapping: Artists Reshaping Landscape. He is distinguished professor in the philosophy department at the State University of New York.

Casey discusses two types, or better, modalities of earth works, "earth works created for the first time and painting taken to a new limit" (p. xxiii). Whilst I recognise the limitations of space available in one manageable volume, I do think the book would have benefited from a brief discussion or at least acknowledgement of traditional indigenous earth-mapped-artworks. There is no shortage of information regarding this practice, as for example, with the people of Micronesia’s practice of Mapping the World in the Mind (Turnbull, D. Deakin University 1991) to navigate vast ocean distances with their functional art objects. More importantly, Australian Aboriginal art, both painting and earth sculpture works, is arguably the most highly developed of this type of art in the world. In this light, Smithson is about ten to twenty thousand years behind the eight ball, both from the aspect of physical-earth-creations and their conceptual underpinnings. Putting this lacuna aside, which perhaps could form the subject of a further volume, this is a well-researched, well written, and important book.



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