Tracing Topographies

October 10 – December 18, 2010

Roger W. Rogers Gallery

In this installation, mixed-media artist Michael Boonstra responds to the landscape of the American West in two very different, but related ways. He combines a suite of graphite drawings on paper entitled “Division Drawings: Fall Creek Tree (24 of 57 total segments) with a group of inkjet prints of aerial photographs entitled “Spending time in places I have not been... (the drawing we all are creating)”.

The visual language of the two bodies of work in the installation are clearly related. Formally, they both employ a narrow but nuanced black and white palette, are essentially found images, and have a shared vocabulary of grainy marks and lines combined with simple geometric forms. While the installation combines photographs with drawings, the photographs are clearly not made with the sensibility of a traditional photographer, but rather concern themselves with the visuality of drawing. Their graininess, heavy pixilation, and lack of detail aim not for clarity, but rather emulate the kind of markmaking one expects from a charcoal drawing.

The photographs are cropped and enlarged details from black and white aerial images of the western landscape. They were taken by Boonstra from a mile above the ground through the windows of commercial airliners. The images are purposely taken of landscapes that are unfamiliar to him (he has not been within 200 miles of most of the locations in the photographs). All of the images show both natural, geological features and man-made marks caused by such processes as road construction, logging, and agriculture. The organic landforms rub shoulders with the rectilinear forms defined by fenced, grazed pastures, and the large-scale circles of spindle-irrigated fields. The horizon reference is removed, and the images are blown up so that their scale becomes ambiguous.

The drawings are small sections taken from a graphite rubbing made from a 5-foot wide tree stump in a section of forest at Fall Creek in the Willamette National Forest that had been salvage-logged after a severe forest fire. This landscape, about 45 minutes southeast of Eugene, is very familiar to Boonstra, who regularly took his children to a favorite swimming hole in the forest for several years before the fire. The surface of the stump and the rubbings show both natural and man-made marks in the form of growth rings and chainsaw scars. The large rubbing was cut into square sections of uniform size in much the same way that the log was processed, divided and transformed into a saleable commodity. The process of division and the uniformity of the sections literally refer to the industrialized process employed by the lumber industry in making commercial wood products from the original tree.

The resulting drawings were then minimally and intuitively manipulated through subsequent markmaking or erasure. Geometric forms were added that are reminiscent of the man-made marks that transform parts of the natural landscape. The growth rings in the drawing could easily pass for plowed contour lines in a hillside field. The comparison between the tree’s growth rings and topographic contour lines, as well as the process of mapping is a clear reference to two very different paradigms: an intimate relationship with the landscape on a micro level, and a far less intimate relationship with the land on a continental, macro level.

While Boonstra’s installation addresses environmental issues, he does so in a subtle way that avoids the simplistic dichotomies that often typify the “man vs. nature” debate. In the drawings he is interested in observing change in a familiar old growth landscape recovering from a cataclysmic fire and subsequent logging. His primary interest in these works is specificity, process, and materiality. In the photographs he is more concerned with examining the interface between evidence of human activities and geological or organic phenomena: the marks humans have left on the landscape on a scale that is even visible from far above the planet’s surface. Boonstra sees these marks as being a kind of visual language. He takes the undeniable evidence of man’s environmental impact and transforms it into something subtle and meditative.

- Andries Fourie

“Division Drawings: Fall Creek Tree, 24 of 47 total segments, graphite on paper, 2010"

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