Elliot Anderson: Average Landscapes

San Francisco, January 8, 2007—Elliot Anderson: Average Landscapes, presented under the auspices of the de Young’s Annenberg supported Collection Connections Program, pursues an exploration of the threads that connect 19th-century American landscape painting and perceptions of the natural world to 21st-century tourist photography. Anderson’s work is intended to draw the attention of museum visitors to their experiences and photographs of landscape, and their relationships to historical representations in painting. As Anderson posits, “Are these snapshots of nature, or are we photographing culture?”

Based on the Museums’ holdings of Hudson River School paintings, the installation features ten images mounted in fourteen light boxes, a video projection of the images being formed, and a series of souvenir porcelain plates with images from the photographs painted on them. Utilizing new technological methods of reproduction and dissemination, Anderson has created a computer software program that searches Internet sites where individuals upload their snapshots for others to view. His search program uses the titles of nineteenth-century landscape paintings in the de Young collection to find digital images that have been uploaded using similar descriptions. The program collects up to 500 pictures for each title and combines these images by averaging them together, creating a single image. The resulting depiction contains traces of all the images collected into its ghostly composite, like layered scrims. Mounting the composites in lightboxes allows viewers to look into the image and see the accumulation of layers.

According to Daniell Cornell, Curator and Director of Contemporary Art Projects, “The Romantic Movement in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries projected human feeling onto natural phenomena, believing that it could be a source of inspiration to counter the advent of scientific rationalism and industrial progress. In their depictions of the landscape, artists sought to capture the ways that nature supposedly encouraged emotional awareness and self-expression. Although Romanticism is often seen as naively optimistic, popular expectations about landscape in America continue to be defined by its philosophical ideals.”

In his most radical intervention into the works in the museum’s collection, Anderson has created a quartet of images out of Thomas Cole’s monumental painting Prometheus Bound (1847), which itself addresses the issue of the mythic role played by landscape images. Anderson creates a quartet of composite images, each drawn from one of the principal narrative elements—the landscape, Jupiter the ‘morning star’, the raptor, and Prometheus. Cole’s painting appropriates the Prometheus story to present a view of the American landscape that is encoded with heroism, progress, divinity, and destiny. However, because mythic language attaches itself to all aspects of the culture, Anderson’s Internet search brought up some startling results.

The myth tells the story of how Prometheus, a Titan from a race of immortal giants, stole fire from heaven in order to bring it to humans. This action earned him the wrath of Jupiter, who condemned the Titan to be chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus in Scythia, where a raptor would devour his liver in the morning only to have it grow back in the night so the torture could repeat the following morning in an endless cycle. Prometheus serves as an emblematic figure: his defiance of Jupiter to aid civilization offers a moral lesson in the virtues of independence, courage, endurance, and sacrifice.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. military has appropriated the mythic associations of this name. Perhaps more surprising is the number of people who have posted photographs of fighter planes and bombers with this name on their Internet sites. Anderson creates a layered montage of these images over the raptor in Cole’s painting, relating the contemporary interest in awe-inspiring military displays to the nineteenth-century ideology of divine destiny and power.

Anderson completes the quartet with a composite image based on the nude figure of Prometheus. In a final ironic twist, typing Prometheus into an Internet search for images brings up Prometheus Books, a gay male publishing company, one branch of which features erotic male photography. These images and the amateur snapshots based on them traffic in a set of conventional poses derived from nineteenth-century neoclassical images of the male nude. The addition of the word bound creates a further discovery, shifting this search to include sadomasochistic imagery and other sexual images from personal chat sites.

Notes Cornell, “Anderson’s sly nod to the homoerotic valance of these works is a reminder that representations of the body may also be constructed to carry ideological values. That these photographs now circulate so widely on the Internet suggests how much we have come to rely on Web-based reality, which replaces actual experiences with virtual ones. In this way, Anderson’s project asks us to consider how our relation-ship to imagery positions us as spectators of mediated conventions that displace physical interactions.”

About The Collection Connection Gallery
The Collection Connections Program presents new works that aim to reinterpret traditional objects from the de Young’s collections. The contemporary artists working in this space create installations that transform the conventional experience of museum viewers. For each project, artist and curator draw inspiration from the permanent collection, offering nontraditional connections that provide visual and educational opportunities to explain, interpret, and recontextualize the art objects on display throughout the museum. Through these projects, visitors are given a window into the ways that artists and cultural institutions construct and disseminate knowledge about historical understanding and current attitudes.

About The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The de Young museum and its sister museum, the Legion of Honor, together comprise the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the largest public arts institution in the city and one of the largest art museums in the United States.

The Legion of Honor is located in San Francisco's Lincoln Park (34th Avenue and Clement Street). Its collections span 4000 years and include major holdings in Rodin sculpture; paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Watteau, de la Tour, Vigée Le Brun, Cézanne, Monet, and Picasso, among other Dutch, Italian, German, English, and French masters; a 15th-century Spanish ceiling, European decorative arts, tapestries, and over 70,000 prints and drawings.

Founded in 1895 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the de Young museum has been an integral part of the cultural fabric of the city and a cherished destination for millions of residents and visitors to the region for over 100 years. In October 2005, the de Young reopened in a state-of-the-art new building. Designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects in San Francisco, the new de Young provides San Francisco with a landmark art museum to showcase the museum’s significant collections of American art from the 17th through the 20th centuries, art from Central and South America, and from the Pacific and Africa, as well as an important and diverse collection of textiles.