A friend in Vermont once described a fisherman who could see the wind as substantially as I could see a rock. The poetry of the idea aside for a moment, most sailors know that by paying attention to the invisible and what surrounds it - clouds, the surface of water, the color of day, for example - one can indeed see the wind. This is a somewhat specialized area of perception, to be sure, but one that operates in the practical as well as the mysterious. A similar attitude toward nature and its myriad subtleties find a parallel in Jan Henle's work and his use of landscape in addressing what he calls "no thing."1 Initially, one might try to identify the land where Henle has photographed. Ultimately, however, it is more intriguing to locate the works' cultural or philosophical place.
One invariably wonders what is being represented here. As "landscapes," these works are disturbingly fundamental: no quaking aspens or heart-stopping vistas. There are, in fact, no obvious reference points at all, only austere stretches of sand, earth and stone. Henle refers to the works as "topographical film drawings." This is not simply drawing as a form of photographic impression. Rather, Henle defines drawing in a provocatively broad manner, encompassing not only a unique means of marking (the land pieces represented here have actually been painstakingly worked with plow and shovel by the artist), but drawing as a function of unusually oblique sight lines that distill the landscape into a dynamic set of contours and spatial planes. As the artist describes it, "The drawing is in the image as opposed to being on the surface of the paper."
Land, the simple ground we stand on, has a meaning for Henle that would be foreign to most of us. Born in New York City in 1948, the artist was raised from a young age on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. To say that this relatively small chunk of earth that punctuates an illusory division between the expansive sky and the massive plane of water that surrounds it is sacred to Henle would not be that far off the mark. Most of the images represented here were recorded on St. Croix or other islands near it. The early images of sand were found by the artist on stretches of beach where he played as a child. The images obtained from these sojourns are anything but nostalgic beach scenes; rather, they can be characterized as existing somewhere between the surreal and the abstract. Although somewhat disorienting and difficult to focus on at first, these modestly-sized images possess a scale that swallows us up into a kind of celestial space. In essence, we face a void of off-white paper, punctuated by tiny chains of sand, like floating planets. It is as if we are staring at infinitesimal worlds in a boundless sky. To my mind, these represent an intimate projection of what artists and philosophers often refer to as the "sublime." The common denominator in all discussions of the sublime is a preoccupation with infinity, that is to say, a preoccupation with the mind's attempt to come to terms with limitlessness. These seemingly simple images of sand suggest a cosmos in which the earth and the grains of sand that help compose it are all precious dots of matter in an infinitely layered abyss.
Henle's works of raw earth have a similar metaphysical austerity, but are the result of a more labor-intensive process. In 1980, the artist hand-cleared a half-acre of land on St. Croix. For the past eight years, he has worked on this land, plowing, harrowing and shoveling it to a fine, smooth texture, photographing its bare presence, and letting the guinea grass grow back again. This continual cycle of working the land becomes the conceptual, even spiritual, fabric of the work, what the artist describes as "one day covering another, layers of perception, layers of time." Each year, the artist expands the perimeter of the land; thus the resulting images become increasingly evocative in a spatial sense, reflecting complex changes in elevation and sight lines.
Henle's actual working of the landscape parallels to some degree the earth works of Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria and the late Robert Smithson, all of whom have used the landscape as their studio. There is, however, an important distinction. Henle's works constitute an attempt to transfer the paradoxical sense of a direct presence of the land, on one hand, and a provocative emptiness on the other. This is not art constructed on the land or an allusion to it through documentation.
For the artist, the simple physical act of plowing, harrowing and shoveling is at the heart of these images. This is essentially a ritualistic labor, a way of breaking down one's intentions to make "art," to accomplish what Henle speaks of as "the removal of I." At the same time, he sees it as a means of "knowing" and connecting with the land in a direct way. Henle's tools - plow, shovel, rake and eventually camera - are his drawing instruments. One might think of Henle's "drawing" as a kind of gardening and the images themselves as gardens of a very personal sort. The obvious analogy exists in the image of a Zen monk raking, day after day, his austere gardens of sand and rock. Indeed, Henle's attempts to verbalize the character of his work continually stress the meditative and intuitive as opposed to the intellectual aspects of art. "On a basic level," Henle has said, "this is an endeavor to see what can happen through living the way I am living. I don't want to think about what to do. I hope the work will happen through a certain discipline and effort and no effort at the same time - life drawn on film."
In the West, the precedent that is called to mind is the Impressionist who was as much gardener and landscapist as painter. By diverting a branch of the river Epte, the painter Claude Monet created an artificial pool beside his home in Giverny. There he planted water lilies and constructed an arched bridge over the pond. These elements served as the model for many of the artist's late paintings. In so doing, Monet established a forum in which the cultural and natural became integrated, if not perfectly, at least to such an extent that it is difficult to separate the two. Henle reaches for a similar type of "event" at a time when the cultural and the industrial have so overpowered the natural. Indeed, such rural activity and attention to nature also takes on a certain political significance; it becomes in its own way a kind of resistance to the inevitable urbanization of nature.
As direct and inert as these earth fields first appear, there is something contemplative and unforgettable about them. It is perhaps this very directness or rawness - the utter removal from anything modern or civilized - that establishes their intensity. They are indeed somehow elegant, but without the overt drama or affectation that fuels so many pictorialized views of nature. Such images demonstrate the power of a certain type of photograph to hold a space, to become something other than a thin, delicate sheet of paper, to be intimate in an almost environmental or sculptural sense. The "white cube," as Brian O'Doherty has dubbed the modern museum or gallery space, has been infected by the simple but rich beauty of dirt. In experiencing these works, we feel not so much a sense of looking at the landscape but rather, a sense of being in the landscape. The image has, in effect, pushed itself through the wall, taking us with it.
Henle's images of stone hills are an extension of this vision. Formally, the works represent attempts to emphasize a striking and monumental twisting of land and space. These images are remarkable for their ability to describe the subtle but elegant curve of the land. As one's eye travels back into these images, a gentle balance is struck between mass and space. In their apparent asceticism they are comparable to photostatic images we have received of the moon's surface. Such landscapes have a dual nature. On one hand, they project a seminal presence, as if we were experiencing images from pre-history, a landscape before man. More pessimistically, there is something desolate and melancholy here, perhaps a post-nuclear vision, a landscape after man.
In the stone works, a hypersensitive awareness of grey and the gradations of light to dark within the tonal grey range establish a charged clarity in which each craggy outcrop assumes the status of an eternal monument that existed long before we entered the picture. We become fragile and transient voyeurs of a larger cosmic life that we find difficult to fathom except in the presence of such stolid survivors. Each stone seems inexplicably profound and dense, a kind of pure impacted and impenetrable nature which induces an unexpected kind of sublime.
Henle's "topographical film drawings" are part of a long tradition of attempts to present an ultimately pure landscape, as it is manifested in an exploration of perceptual phenomena and a metaphysical concern with man's place in nature. Precisely where these photographs were taken is of relatively little importance to anyone but Henle. Indeed, the artist resists talking about location.
In their stripped-down directness, Henle's images represent a psychological space as much as a visual one: nothing as simple as a point on a map or as dramatic as the surreal. These images then, are a kind of prolonged stare, an Egyptian mirror image that slowly dematerializes, reflecting back our own thoughts. In this sense, these images are not a landscape, but the landscape, the universal landscape.
Like the Zen monk and his garden of sand and rock, Henle establishes an economy of image that focuses our attention on a meditative concept of space and time. In both types of work there is an allusion to the void and the infinite, and an invitation to experience this space as an expanded threshold of consciousness, a kind of metaphorical self-portrait. The challenge of establishing a unity between the self and nature is perhaps less common in the West, but has nonetheless found important expressions here, reflected in, for example, Barnett Newman's ambition to create "an expression of the original noumenistic mystery in which rock and man are equal."2 Henle continues to probe this illusive barrier between the mental landscape and the physical one. Such a preoccupation may always remain a central paradox of contemporary art and philosophy.
All quotations by the artist are taken from conversations with the author, 1983-1988.
Barnett Newman, introductory essay for Stamos (New York: Betty Parsons Gallery, 1947); quoted also in Kirk Varnedoe, "Abstract Expressionism", in Primitivism (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1985), p. 629.