Beginning Nature Again: Joe Danciger’s Landscape Paintings

by Donald Kuspit

If the waves crash up against the beach, eroding dunes and destroying houses, it is not the awesome power of Mother Nature. It is the awesome power of Mother Nature altered by the awesome power of man, who has overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born.
Bill McKibben, The End of Nature

…the seemingly fortuitous disorder of landscape-form hides the inevitability of nature.
Max J. Friedländer, Landscape Portrait Still-Life

Why paint nature these days? There’s only one reason: it’s at an end. One paints it to begin it again: art always begins with nature, and now that nature is near its end, art can re-start it, so to speak—make it speak from its death-bed, even bring it back to life the way Christ brought Lazarus back to life, or at least give it a decent burial. Or, better yet, find its forgotten backwaters, the isolated spaces in which it still flourishes, holdouts against increasingly encroaching civilization, so-called. Its unnatural urban environment, nominally fit for life but lifeless in itself, dismisses nature as beside the social point, valuable only if it can be exploited, used and abused. Its decorative remains are ghettoized in parks, or left to fester on sidewalks, bushes and trees lining urban streets, distracting from their barren anonymity. We cultivate and cherish plants and flowers in our houses and gardens, supporting their lives as though to support our own, unconsciously realizing and compensating for the feeling that we were not adequately, let alone properly, cultivated, cherished, and supported—nourished–by society. Such cared for, “civilized” plants and flowers serve a therapeutic, narcissistic purpose, but they are not as hardy as plants and flowers that grow in the wild, where they are more assertively alive, having to hold their own against the elements. One has to go into the wilderness—whatever is left of it–to find the truth of nature, and with that escape its falsification in society. In the raw nature is authentic, refined it is oddly inauthentic, even artificial—all too artful.

Joe Danciger does that: retreating from society in a proverbial return to nature—but now a nature that can be seen and known only in fragments, in piecemeal form, haunted and marred by signs of human presence and power, unlike, say, the fulsome nature the Fontainebleue Forest painters idolized, devoting themselves to it as the embodiment of Mother Nature herself, seen whole and intact, uncontaminated by humankind. Nature can no longer be romanticized—it is too tainted—as John Constable did: it can only be “real-ized.” Nor can the emotions one instantly invests in it be as violent as those of Caspar David Friedrich. Nature can no longer be inflated by feeling–its inevitability is all that’s left of it. With a kind of clear-eyed detachment, Danciger returns us to its origin in inevitable change, reminds us of its capacity to begin again and again, never end in a cycle of seasonal, physical change indifferent to human concerns and feelings, and slowly but surely ridding itself of any signs of human presence, burying them the way the snow buries the tow path in his painting of a Sycamore on the Tow Path, 2011.

It is a winter scene, the majestic tree is desiccated—almost leafless and blanched, as though dead, yet uncannily alive, as its twin trunks and wildly spreading branches suggest. The bits of leaf remaining on it are yellowish, as though tinted by sunlight, and the trunks are rooted in brown soil: nourished by the sun and the earth, fresh leaves will grow on the tree, making it more glorious. It has a figural presence, but there are no human figures in the scene, only the tow path, cut like a scar into the earth, as its sunken character suggests. More to the point of the picture, at least as I see it, snow almost completely covers the man-made tow path, as though nature was trying to eliminate it, at least make it difficult to use, implying that human beings have no place in nature, certainly not welcome in the wilderness. The same message is implicit in Gallows Run in Winter, 2013, with its small path, stale and dull with mud, pushed aside by the rushing water of the run, moving much more swiftly than the plodding path, passively present but beside the point of nature and its constant activity.

Trees, now lush with green—the season is now summer–all but hide the house in Tow Path in August, 2013. Man-made constructions—mechanical bridges and umbrellas—appear in Black Eddy Bridge and Landscape with Two Red Umbrellas, both 2015, but the bridges are absorbed into nature by way of their green color and the flaming red umbrellas become gorgeous flowers in full blossom. Lively nature triumphs over inert human inventions—a triumph of life over death, more particularly of the organic over the mechanical. The difference and struggle between them is emblematic of the difference and struggle between the “open system” organic and “closed system” robotic models of human being. According to Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the developer of systems theory, it is a conflict over our self-definition that will decide our fate. Dacinger is clearly in open rebellion against the closed mechanical model of life and art—completely rejects Constructivist machine-model type of art as his organic painterliness, with its expressionistic vitality, evoking the vitality of nature, indicates. Nature for him is not a robot at our command, but a body that changes with the seasons of life, just as the human body does. The struggle between organic expressionist “bodily” type art and inorganic mechanical “anti-body” type art is basic to modern art.

Danciger is not on the tow path, but on its side, like the untamable sycamore, and as silently intense as it: unconsciously identifying with it–it surges with instinctive energy, suggesting that it is a symbol of the instinctive energy, implicit in his brisk brushstrokes, he brings to art-making (their quixotic turbulence mirrors the wildly growing tree)–he becomes part of nature, as solitary as the tree, and as innocently alive. I could not help thinking of Thoreau’s remark: “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” But then the sycamore is Danciger’s companion. He is not projecting any particular feeling onto the tree, but rather mirroring its dynamic, restless, changing form in his dynamic, restless, ever-changing handling. Only an artist sure of his own vitality would venture into this oddly utopian wilderness—a desolate nowhere, reminding us that utopia is a hope-filled nowhere.

Technically the tow path leads us into the distance—puts the scene into perspective—but the sky flattens to the canvas, acknowledging it in a modernist manner, while the wild growth in the middle ground, with its richly textural tangle of branches, finesses that flatness, suggesting the implicit abstractness of the picture. It can in fact be read as a study in blues—airy light blue in the sky, watery dark blue on the earth—and brownish yellows, with the few completely dead growths accenting their presence with blackness. Light is everywhere, indeed, the sycamore seems made of light, giving it a ghostly aura. The medium may not be all for Danciger—after all, he’s representing an external observed reality—as the modernist critic Clement Greenberg argued it is for an abstract painter, but he is clearly a master of it, as his vigorous painterliness indicates.

I think of Danciger’s landscapes as reparative: he wants to repair a nature that has been damaged—certainly soul murdered–by human beings. He searches out untouched-by-human-hands nature—the raw nature in Purple Marsh, 2013 and Ice and Wild Rice, 2014, among other works, all-site specific (generally in over-populated New Jersey or Pennsylvania)—taking its pulse with his artistic hands, confirming that it is alive and well, and undisturbed. He comes across these places as though by accident, as On the Road to Sea Breeze, 2015 suggests. He has painted scenic places near the Delaware River, which divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania, and adjoins Philadelphia, where he lives. He is clearly more intimately at home in such rural places than in urban Philadelphia, which, as far as I know, he has never painted. He has particularly painted where land and water meet, suggesting a fusion of opposites, or at least their comfortable togetherness. Early landscape painting, from Joachim Patinir to Albrecht Altdorfer, always had some sign of human
presence, as though to suggest that nature was manageable and orderly if not completely under control. In Altdorfer’s great Danube School painting, Saint George Slaying the Dragon, 1510—they’re positioned at the bottom of a dense forest of tall trees with seemingly eternally green leaves systematically arranged—the dragon the saint is slaying is implicitly the daemonic spirit of the surrounding nature. Nature, however seductively beautiful, remains a threat: after all, the dragon is the snake that tempted Eve enlarged to monstrous, grotesque proportions. But nature has been all but conquered and enslaved in modernity—or so we think—which is why there is no need for a masterful human being in Danciger’s landscapes. He is alone with its inconsequential traces, suggesting they are a new beginning of nature, even as he memorializes them.

Writing about the landscape painting that they saw in “The Salon of 1859” in Paris, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt declared that “landscape is the victor of modern art. It is the pride of nineteenth century painting.” They noted that “when nature is condemned to death, when industry dismembers it, when iron roads plough it, when it is violated from one pole to another, when the city invades the fields, when industry pens it in…that the human spirit hastens towards nature, looks at it as it never has before, sees this eternal mother for the first time….Will landscapes become a resurrection, the Easter of the eyes?” Landscape painting seems to have had its day in the 20th century, and seems beside the point of the 21st century, with its relentless technologization of society, but people still hasten to nature, as the tourists in the national parks and the people who camp in what is left of the wilderness show. But nature is more tightly penned in than ever, exists in a sort of solitary confinement, although one can no longer be alone with it, as the crowds that flock to gaze at it, in search of a numinous, uplifting experience, suggest. Danciger, determined to preserve what remains of pure nature, makes pure landscapes, that is, landscapes unsullied by signs of human presence. Those that appear are drained of human import, as I have suggested, that is, “naturalized.” Danciger has resurrected landscape painting, making it a feast for the eyes, but it is no longer the Easter of the eyes, but rather a sort of child taking its first steps, beginning to walk, not quite on its own, for it needs Danciger to hold it up, to keep it moving.