Catalog essay from Counter Nature, 2011

In her book, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West,
Rebecca Solnit explores the temporal and spatial characteristics of sublimity as an
intermediary -- or sensation -- between nature, culture, and technology. Like an intrepid
explorer who traverses codified and enigmatic spaces, familiar and unknown phenomena,
Solnit navigates emergent infatuations with technology and the captivating spectacle
of nature in the 19th century American west. Muybridge, perhaps best known by our
contemporaries as an eccentric inventor and industrious photographer of time and high-
speed motion studies, was also a restless explorer of the wilderness who frequently
retreated to the dramatic, restive landscapes of Yosemite and other remote sites to make
exquisite photographs of a primordial timelessness.

In these extreme and contrasting circumstances, he embraced and enacted the "wild"
as a multiply-located concept, encountered in the ruggedly foreboding conditions and
breath-taking views of vast geological formations, as well as through ad hoc apparatus
he developed to systematically photograph Leland Stanford's beloved horses as they
galloped around the race tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad magnate and philanthropist.
If forays into an uncolonized wilderness were embodied, often exhilaratingly unpredictable
encounters with timeless spaces, Muybridge's experiments in methodical, sequential
photography were optically immersive experiences in the temporal. In one site, visuality
was a confirmation of the incommensurable; in the other, it transformed the hypothetical
into irrefutable fact. If the sublime is often manifest as an experience of the body in the
present and the mind drawn to an unimaginable future, Muybridge's groundbreaking work
stood at the cusp of the real and the virtual, the natural and artificial, embodied experience
and abstracted representation. If not the singular objective of the book, Solnit traces the
roots of contemporary California's Silicon Valley and Hollywood. It is a striking trajectory
that resonates within Maria Park's distinctive paintings of contemporary landscapes
and spaces.

In Counter Nature, Park's paintings deploy precision and exactitude to raise unsettling
questions that Muybridge's work presaged more than a century ago. In this recent series
of paintings executed on both the front and back of sheets and cubes of Plexiglas or
polycarbonate, surface and depth are ambiguously rendered through crisp, crystalline
patterns and interlocking passages of color where space is effaced and time is suspended.
In the entire Counter Nature series and, in particular, Counter Nature and Counter Nature 2,
Park represents a legacy of culturally-endorsed landscape tropes. Niagara National Park,
like other national parks, is an iconic site and legendary destination. Sited on the border
between the Canadian province of Ontario and New York State, Niagara Falls is the most
powerful waterfall in North America. Moving through a deep gorge created by receding
glaciers during the Wisconsin glaciation and connected to the newly formed Great Lakes,
the deafening torrent of water persists as sublime evidence of geological upheaval. Park
paints this inexhaustible spectacle in a frozen choreography of colorful stenciled and
layered elements. In contrast, Park's paintings of Hawaii's Hanauma Bay and California's
Half Moon Bay depict other attractive tourist sites that feature more picturesque
renditions of landscape perception and response. With keen skepticism, she creates a
visually vibrant homogeneity to these compelling landscapes -- and legendary sites.

Inspired by spontaneous photographs that Park took of people watching an event in a
park-like setting, the paintings titled CN3-1 - CN3-4 in Counter Nature 3 meticulously
register the foreground yet edits background space and features. Individuals or small
groups of people, in an apparently quiet, bucolic setting, are arrested in an unidentifiable
activity and confined in an inexplicable space. The informal, casually distracted
confederation of people in these paintings is ambiguous -- neither planned nor pointless,
neither organized nor random. If not uniformly merged, nature, culture, and humanity
are depicted in an undistinguishable condition of mutuality. The paintings are aggressively
flattened through a puzzling depth of field that hovers between shallow space and deep
focus. A lushly manicured environment of low-lying bushes, trees, benches, trash
receptacles, and other commonplace characteristics of contemporary public space register
a particularity and singularity of a moment to uncannily engender a ubiquitous some place
or anywhere.

The "natural" features, props, and halted activities of the Counter Nature series are
represented through a brittle, supple, evenly applied camouflage pattern -- a representation
of assimilation and distraction achieved through a graphic conformity. Like the "dazzle
painting" that Norman Wilkinson invented to "hide" battleships at sea in World War I, Park
constructs a calculated optical confusion, through intricately interrupted yet connected
geometrical shapes or painted surfaces wrapped around the surfaces of Plexiglas boxes,
to produce a synaptic hesitation -- and puzzlement. Unlike conventional forms of crypsis
that create concealment to help an animal or object go unnoticed, dazzle painting made it
difficult to determine the size, shape, direction, or position of some thing -- for instance, a
distant vessel at sea. Clashing and distracting patterns cause perceptional ambiguity and
visual misalignments, creating disorientation rather than obfuscation or "disappearance".

Avoiding pessimism or optimism, the work has a confounding disposition. Its deadpan
concision and matter-of-fact character neither laments what we have become nor aspires
to something else. The paintings clinically record a moment, yet there is a particular shift
of sensibility in the Counter Nature 3 series. Park has placed figures in earlier work but
generally with a discernible reason or rationale, often based on art historical references
or common behaviors. In this series, people inhabit a particular, but unknown moment in
a blandly pleasant, generic space. They seem neither consequentially connected to each
other nor to the environment they occupy. They seem as "placed" as the other features
and amenities of the setting.

In 1967, Michel Foucault introduced the idea of heterotopia in a then unpublished paper
entitled, "Of Other Spaces". Citing epistemological shifts in perception in the Middle Ages
prompted by Galileo's theories of an expended and infinitely open idea of space, Foucault
traced a development of modern space that was neither singular nor local, but part of
expansively continuous spectrum connected through time and movement. For Foucault,
this represented -- and collapsed -- the inevitable, coincidental passage of the temporal
and spatial in the 20th century. The heterotopic is where contradictory concepts and
experiences of time converge to create spaces of imminence and potential -- where reality
is challenged and ideas and images of the future are forged and fused. Foucault introduced
a new conception of the topological that acknowledged an increasing conundrum of the
real and unreal, the material and the immaterial.

He wrote:

"The location of a thing, in fact, was no longer . . . anything more than a point in its
movement, its rest nothing but its movement slowed down infinitely. In other words, from
Galileo onward . . . localization was replaced by extension. Nowadays, arrangement has
taken over from extension . . . It is defined by relationships of neighborhood between points
and elements, which can be described formally as series, trees, and networks."

Another example of fractured forms and startling collisions of scopic expectations is
graphically experienced in Park's ensemble of 12 two-and-one-half inch cubes that
discretely and serially challenge a capacity to develop a coherent, cohesive view of the
world. The seductive promise of the complete panorama is constitutively unformed and
chronically disturbed. Some sides of the cubes inevitably are withheld; only partial
knowledge is possible. No reconfiguration of the cubes satisfies a nostalgic desire for a
less artificially articulated or "complete" natural world.

In her earlier work, Park has exploited the cultural and optical conventions of landscape
painting, film, and photography to create concisely rendered and leveled depictions of
natural settings through elegantly equalizing, yet sensual, applications of paint on Plexiglas
and other unyielding, transparent surfaces. Hudson River School painters and 19th/20th
century nature photographers, such as Muybridge, made pilgrimages to actual sites to
capture landscape images. In the late 20th/ early 21st century, nature increasingly -- and
often dizzyingly -- is observed through the disembodied perspective of optically optimized
view of photographs, car windows, other frames, and instruments, and deftly manipulated
digital images. Nature is remote, separated from actual lived experience in a world of
accelerating change and represented by objective scientific analysis, nostalgic visual
conventions, and as a potential resource.

Through an orchestration of a shallow, spaceless depth of field with an intensification of
brilliant colors in brittle fragments, Park engenders heterotopic landscapes and public
spaces that are vividly imaginative and undeniably real. Deploying both the expectations
of painting with a perceived objectivity of contemporary visual tools, Park creates succinct,
compelling images of constitutive dislocation -- representations of a sublimity dynamically
reconfigured in the increasingly contested spaces of nature, culture, and technology.

Patricia C. Phillips
March 2011

Works cited:
Rebecca Solnit. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West
(New York: Viking Penguin) 2003.
Michel Foucault, "Of Other Spaces," trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986)