A New Naturalism

Johanna Drucker
Robertson Professor of Media Studies
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4866

A New Naturalism: Biological Regionalism and the work of Alberto Rey
Johanna Drucker

The natural world once appeared to be a vast domain of un-categorized and unknown phenomena. In those ages of discovery, the explorer set out to map still-uncharted territory accompanied by an artist, notebook and specimen press in hand. Physical adventure had its counterpoint in the naturalist’s careful annotations in watercolor sketches, pen and ink notes, and graphite drawings. The shape of natural things was conscientiously recorded, from their minutiae to the grandest vistas of unfamiliar climes gaping open to the uncharted horizon of discovery. The literal forms, but also, the conceptual outline of the larger idea of “Nature” emerged from such an inventory.

This visual record now reads as the expression of another era’s self-styled innocence, combined in some inevitable way with the teleology of conquest and colonization. But these early images of so-called virgin wilderness (when such terms were both permissible and – perhaps– applicable) were not merely used to claim land in the name of some authority or for some purpose. They were conceived within the larger plan of a modern urge toward knowledge as classification and study. Observation forms the core of the empiricist’s skill set, and the urge to classify has both a noble purpose of understanding and a more dubious one, the impulse to control. The enlightenment project of conquering nature with reason, of subduing the natural world to human purpose, involved the grand domestication of the unruly forces and forms of organicism under a rule of law. That, too, is part of the tradition from which the naturalist draws– in both literal and metaphoric senses of that term.

Thus a long history of documentation of the natural world exists, to which Alberto Rey’s “Biological Regionalism” belongs. Pre-modern precedents for this lineage include medieval herbals and bestiaries, the fine anatomical works of Arabic scholars, and the medical treatises of classical China, conceived as instruments of knowledge in which aesthetics were the handmaid to another discipline. The art of drawing nature, celebratory and exploratory, has other roots within indigenous and traditional cultures. The finely wrought carp, cranes, cherry blossoms and a myriad of other natural objects in Japanese painting emphasize them as the source of aesthetic value. The elaborate motifs of native Americans exhibit a respectful mythology in which the figures of natural forms are imbued with animate spirit. The western traditions intellectualize their representation of nature, ordering and organizing perception to align with a rational system of morphology and typology.
Perception of the natural world always occurs within a larger understanding. In modern development, urban centers increasingly absorb once-distributed populations. A complicated separation of natural and cultural spheres becomes reinforced within patterns of production. Nature becomes the raw stuff, supposedly available for use, on which culture is built. But the success of such machinations conceals their artifice. The sense of entitlement that puts humans in opposition to nature, first world to third, developed to developing nation, all map onto diabolical binarisms. We forget we are the authors of these distinctions, and that nature is a product of shifting debate whose meaning isn’t given a priori. As we are less and less aware of what remains of the patterns of organic life that are not exclusively human, we are perhaps less inclined to understand that we ourselves are part of a larger world.

What remains of nature now? This is the late era of globally networked ecosystems, all painfully sensitive to the least degree of climatic transformations caused in the massive systems of exploitative use (even as these are denied and trivialized in too many official circles). We witness daily the exploitation of the natural resources of the planet at a scale un-dreamt of in earlier mythology. The sources of change are many, and notions of regional identity falter under the influence of so many agents affecting contemporary existence. The history of organic life is filled with mutations, migrations, and peculiar residual backwaters where species continue unaware of the very improbability of their survival. Statistical sciences map the flux, charting those changes that lend themselves to quantitative metrics. The grim predictions for the rate at which species will vanish in the decades to come is hardly balanced by the shrugging realization that now, as always, these violent vicissitudes argue only more strongly for the effect of humankind as an opportunistic species.

Science eschews expressive forms, with their taint of subjectivity. But the arts embrace this mode as theirs, and rightly use its rhetorics to great advantage. Rey is certainly a rhetorical draftsman, and his fish imagery, with specimens poised in a suspended watery animation, fading at the edges to a strangely isolated vignette, creates a curious sense of nostalgia. The present is already vanishing. Are these icons of memory? Acts of preservation? Or a record of what is and may be still kept alive? Rey’s are graphic arguments, suggestive rather than prescriptive. He researches the biological cycles of local fish, and studies the ecological life of the streams and rivers where he lives in upstate New York. But he travels as well, seeking to identify the distinguishing elements of the areas he visits to create a symbolic connection to each place and among the creatures and sites he observes.

The romantic image of nature as wilderness, a concept and term both unknown in European vocabulary, opened the vistas of the Americas through paintings that promised as much to the spirit as to the eye. From the late 18th century through the great romantic period of the 19th, a soaring sense of optimism, vast as those horizons of space, seemed fostered by the dazzling light of Frederick Church, the mythologizing scale of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and others of their ilk. Europeans, or East Coast born, their eyes and visual sense of scale were altered profoundly by their confrontation with the heretofore unimagined grandeur of the West and South. From the Rockies, to the Andes, in the jungles of Central America, and the vividly painted deserts and abundant plains, across the sweeping prairies and around the boiling sulphurous stinkpots with their shooting geysers the artist naturalists found an inexhaustible variety of forms. Some, like John James Audubon, tasked intently to chronicle the creatures they encountered in context. Drawing their landscapes and habitats as well as their finely made forms, he provided glimpses of whole worlds, not merely the birds, rodents, and other quadrapeds that presented themselves to his eye.

But naturalism is no pure pursuit and the 19th century naturalist, like those great now canonical painters of Nature, was often an instrument (wittingly or not) of some larger purpose. Nationalism lurks as the ideological subtext of the Hudson River school painters. Their visual conquest of the land practically authorizes the course of a conquering empire. The destiny manifest in these picturings suggests a narrative trajectory in which the land is already American, and in which territories are available for settlement, statehood, and other forms of subjugation to a larger will. What remains after is not the same as the world which beckoned, with its fecund abundance. Those very regions that seduced the painters into producing such fantastical images of an equally magical place became the site of disputed claims over who controlled their fates. Huge flocks of birds, such as pigeons, darkened the sky. Whole masses of ducks, geese, wild turkeys, pheasants, quail and other game birds took flight before his eyes as Audubon arrived in the early 1800s to chronicle the birds of America. This abundance is gone, just as the wild reaches of Central and South America, of the great Western United States, Yosemite and the Tetons, the Sierras and the great Grand Canyon, are no longer wonders of nature but contested sites.

We can’t have Nature back again the way it was, and cannot even reengage with imagining it as we might have. Nostalgia serves no purpose, especially if it means pursuing a chimera of another era’s imagined Arcadia. We must look around us, here and now, if we are to see beyond those lost illusions. Everywhere in our current lives we see the vanishing of animals and plants, the disappearance of regional differences and cultural specificity in the wash of mono-culture. A fierce set of ongoing struggles engages us at every turn. Traditions come to be the stuff of tourism. “Indigenous” is a term often used to cover artificially preserved anachronisms–as “authentic” creates a fiction of unspoiled and intact continuity. But such definitions don’t reflect the dialectical character of definitions. A region is defined in relation to how its boundaries are set as much as where, and by the terms of difference according to which they are maintained. What constitutes an edge, a region’s border, its essential character, its distinctive particulars? In a global context in which all produced value is consumed in the terms of an omnivorous economy of desire, the manufacture of an image of regional identity lays itself open to the charge of mere branding, of identity formation for the sake of a market share. “Local” becomes a sign of distinction, a niche in the larger economy.

On the other hand, the observation of what constitutes the “local” from within asserts a counter-current to that commodifying gaze that objectifies it from without. What defines a region? Self-identification rather than reification turns the tables. The phenomenological sense of place is constituted in an ongoing relation to lived experience, social and sensorial. How to find those particulars? Register them? The artist-naturalist is now an artist-ecologist, eager to record those species whose sheer existence confers beauty on their form. What rare privilege to be an artist who travels to see the mute and wondrous creatures of the earth, to see the spirit of life in a myriad of forms all infinitely varied, moment to moment, one to another. The hovering fish, hanging suspended in their strangely dislocated vignettes, hark back to the devotional imagery of Rey’s earlier work. They are icons, but like the surrealistically painted close-ups of rare orchids, hummingbirds, and insects in the work of Martin Johnson Heade, they seem uncannily aware of being observed in all of their otherness.

Not the science, but the art, of life is the driving theme in Alberto Rey’s ongoing project. His painting of fish in their living form is an act of observation as preservation. An act of reverence stresses the realization that life is the organized intelligence of matter, aware and sentient, active, sensate, and replete with coordination. Grace and beauty are mere words. But graphing the arch of a jaw, the set of a spine, the quick silvery movement of a dorsal fin or the spines in a tail — these are visual signs of an existence designed to meet the exigencies of environment. They are also incredibly beautiful forms, or so we are shown to believe. Rey confers aesthetic value on the engineered adaptations of aquatic species and surprises us into appreciating the elegance of all creation. Thick lips, bulging eyes, shiny scales and odd arrangements of color, form, and size are all simply evidence of the diversity of shapes that organic life can assume. Rey’s appreciation of this fact is clear in every work, the watery light and luminous medium in which he finds his fishes marks a shift from landscape to seascape, providing a view of a sub-aqueous world inhabited by creatures beautifully unaware of their own mortality and divinity. For they are both, these fabulous things, alive and ephemeral, and imbued with the most sublime spirit of existence, as beings and entities, existent and transient.

Rey catches them in his glazes, preserving the regional fishes for posterity. Who are they? Who are we? What do we know of the world if these strange and sometimes familiar looking creatures are its inhabitants, alongside and within the zones we occupy? Might we learn something from their located-ness, their habitual relation to specific places? Does the concept of region belong as much to the future, ready for reinvention by placing a premium on immediacy and present-ness, as antidotes to those long-standing teleologies of progress that have so ravaged our cultural and natural landscapes? Rey is hardly moralizing in these images, nor is he performing sly anthropomorphism in the expressive force of his paintings. Quite the contrary.

In his engagement with these places and their creatures, Rey seems intent on absorbing the particular other-ness of each as if to show how knowing is always about that edge of awareness beyond which is the infinite and inexhaustible domain of ignorance. The line between nature and culture has always been along that hard to discern but definitive edge. A Nature invented for Culture’s pleasures risks being contained by the power of the latter. Nature swells within the human perception, sometimes conceived as a province of divine intention, sometimes as a raw force of cosmic energy taking shape and form. At other moments, Nature figures the promise of salvific grace, or unfettered abandon, or a lost paradise. Every age and era imagines Nature in its own image, and in these days, Rey’s apperception of the regional diversity of life-forms, each needing to be reverenced, has the force of a global vision that does not conquer what it sees and names, but rather, respects and preserves it

The lessons to be learned are those of seeing and appreciating, after which the question of destruction might become moot. If we could see all of the world as Rey sees these fishes, then what new ecology of aesthetic appreciation might come into being? Ideas are not different from other living things, a few seeds of diversity can preserve an entire species. Regions of thought are like physical locales, capable of serving by example, rather than exhaustion. Rey’s models of seeing are not exhortations to action. Nor are they prescriptive judgments. They are demonstratives of principles of engaged observation, evidence that seeing and drawing are modes of transforming perception into sentience. From that awareness, anything may follow.

Charlottesville, Virginia