In her latest body of work, Topography (Re)newed, the multifaceted artist Diane Rosenblum delves into the history of art and the arc that connects it to our contemporary reality (which is, of course, becoming increasingly mediated by digital technology). In this series, which focuses on 19th century Hudson River School landscapes, Rosenblum contrasts the romance, grandeur, and expansiveness of nature with the reality of lives spent increasingly in front of small screens. By pulling out and enlarging pixelated color samples taken from digital representations of paintings, she foregrounds the digital filter through which we receive most of our information.
Here, the layers of representation are many and worth peeling back: Rosenblum’s prints are an expression or representation of her digital file, which itself refers back to another digital file, made by someone else who photographed the original painting. In this context, it behooves us to remember that the “original” paintings were themselves representations—they were in fact the 19th century media that gave people access (as television or internet does today) to a reality that was not in front of them. And, like all media, these representations carried with them the personal and political perspectives of both the artists and the viewers (which, as Rosenblum aptly points out in her very articulate statement, were not always aligned).
Rosenblum’s focus on American landscape painting as her genre of choice is not arbitrary. Among other things, it is a way of foregrounding the tension between our romanticization of nature and humanity’s incessant consumption and commodification of it. The Hudson River School artists were working in the first few decades of the 19th century, precisely the moment when Americans of European descent convinced themselves that it was their “manifest destiny” to take ownership of the untouched American West and exploit its resources for private gain. The story continues today with our systematic exploitation of the earth’s resources to support our consumption-based culture and economy, as well as in the technical eld, where raw data is now “mined” as a new capitalist resource. As the artist explains:
Topography (Re)newed revisits the question of how we render the American landscape, applying a conceptual map (driven by computer languages, large data sets, and new technology business models) that was unavailable to past generations in this particular tradition in visual art.
The series also adopts a visual language based on sampling (Rosenblum refers to house and rap music) where parts or details of a previous artist’s work are pulled out, riffed on, and turned into something new. Certainly, artists have been copying and borrowing aspects of each other’s work for centuries. But the 20th century modernist era was increasingly focused on abstraction and on personal and individual expression. The return to copying, borrowing, and appropriating other artists’ work has come about more recently as a core tenet of post-modernism.
In Rosenblum’s work, we see this dialectic mash up between work authored nearly two centuries ago and work authored today, laid out with a distinctly 21st century self-awareness in a very contemporary visual language (namely manipulating pixels into print rather than moving paint on canvas with a brush). While this “meta-approach” (to use the artist’s own words) could easily result in a simple stripped-down reference or a vandalized version, Rosenblum’s practiced artistic sensibility shines through in her approach to composition, pattern, color, and light to create an aesthetically-pleasing picture that asks big questions while flickering in and out of history and contemporary reality.
Diane Rosenblum studied studio art and art history at Oberlin College and has a Masters degree from the Brooks Institute of Photography. She has exhibited internationally in China, Argentina, and throughout the United States and California. Her work is in 20 museum collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the LA County Museum of Art, and The Albertina Museum in Vienna, among others. Rosenblum was the recipient of the Phelan Award for Printmaking in 2007 and was an artist-in-residence at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley from 2005 through 2009. Rosenblum currently lives and works in San Francisco.