What Lies Beyond the Human and the Made
Mason Archie and the Beautiful Landscape
From cubism to conceptual art, the movement away from traditional aesthetics in Western art has been relentless. “Beauty and art were once thought of as belonging together, with beauty as among art’s principal aims and art as beauty’s highest calling,” says art historian David Beech. “However, neither beauty nor art have come through avant-gardist rebellion and modern social disruption unscathed. Their special relationship has, as a result, become estranged and tense…” 1
Mason Archie is a self-trained artist who has not been troubled by these disruptions. He began painting when he was 14 years old and experimented with oils. Within a year, the emerging artist had become so proficient he was hired by Lamar Outdoor Advertising Company to paint billboards. During his almost 15-years with Lamar he painted everything from cars, ice cubes, liquors, cigarettes, celebrity portraits and mirrored lakes. At about age 30, Archie formed his own commercial sign company.
Archie has turned to fine art production full-time. He characterizes his work as encompassing Hudson River School technique with an Impressionist palate. Archie honed his artistic methods through self-study of Old Master styles and credits the trompe l’oeil works of artist Ken Davies as his first inspiration to paint. Archie’s landscape paintings are in private corporate collections such as Nationwide Insurance, Eli Lilly and Wells Fargo Bank. He resides in Indianapolis, Indiana and exhibits nationally.
Viewing his work provides an opportunity to ponder the meaning of beauty in human consciousness and life as well as in the art itself.
When considering a group of recent paintings by Archie, I was first compelled by the sheer beauty of his work. Evening on the White River (2013), Sunset Across the Marshland (2014), Old Red Barn (2014), Sunset Across the Snow (2014) are lushly presented landscapes which call to mind and eye ideals of masterworks of nineteenth century American Hudson River School art and European aesthetic theory stretching back as far as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke. 2
In Evening on White River, one’s eye lingers on sprouts of wild grass, craggy rock and rippling pool in the foreground, with the eye then drawn to a spectacle of brilliant light emblazoning a majestic tree, then moving out across glassine waters and a river bend to softly colored Romantic atmosphere.
In Sunset across the Marshland, a play of sun and cloud above the serenity of the marshes.
The decaying structure and the scar of meandering paths in Old Red Barn recall the beauty of the ‘picturesque’ as categorized by Burke and the little fire in the distance is the consumate touch!
Looking into Sunset Across the Snow, the viewer is positioned in a glowing snow field to contemplate the beauty of horizon and sky. Here Archie employs a palette and sensibility reminiscent of the great Romantic painter Casper David Freidrich. And in each of these works, he succeeds in suspending our reality, perhaps, achieving what Kant extolled as one’s direct, personal and unmediated response to beauty.
Awakening to the space on my side of the frame, I must return to my charge to consider how these contemporary works, unabashedly traditional in form and purpose, might be considered when set within contemporary artistic approaches and aesthetic theories that have derided beauty and its purposes so vehemently? Why make work today that is traditionally ‘beautiful’ when edgy, hip, cool, high and low minded conceptualism still rules the day among contemporary art?
Opening Ourselves to the Aliveness of the World
Some Philosophical Considerations of Beauty
In this meditation on "beauty," there are three aesthetic views worth consideration: First, there is the eighteenth century view of Immanuel Kant, alluded to earlier, which holds that the perception of beauty is unmediated by cultural influences. He maintains that each individual perceives beauty as a direct and personal response to art or nature. This Kantian view provides the foundations for twentieth century aesthetic critics such as Roger Fry, and later Clement Greenberg, who engaged formalist interpretations of art that maintain, “…disinterested apprehension of directly perceivable properties (color, rhythm, meter, balance, proportion, etc.) distinguished aesthetic experiences from all others…” 3 In opposition to the formalist approach to art, a second view of beauty and art, also prevalent throughout the twentieth century, maintained that the perception of beauty is socially inscribed.
Many contemporary aesthetic critics and art historians subscribe to this second view of culturally inscribed perception and castigate beauty in its traditional Western forms as being misogynist, colonialist, and imperialist among other ills. Among those subscribing to this second view, “ …Avant-gardism, both in the early twentieth-century avant-garde movements…and the neo-avant-garde such as Minimalism and Conceptualism, recast beauty as ideologically complicit with political power, while simultaneously cultivating a sensitivity to the repressed values of ugliness, philistinism, shock or abjection…” 4 The theoretical foundations for this approach to art and interpretation are found largely in the work of figures such as Smith, Hume, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Ricoeur and Foucault 5.
Finally, in most recent times, a third view on beauty has emerged among aesthetic theorists and critics which argues for a rescue of beauty in the Kantian sense, acknowledging that viewers may be ‘mediated’ by society in their perceptions of beauty, but maintaining the act of engagement with beauty is still among the most ennobling ideals of humanity. Arthur Danto, Dave Hickey, Elaine Scarry and Susan Sontag have all made arguments for the rescue of ‘beauty’ in recent times. 6
The ideas of Scarry and Songtag are useful in contemplating why an artist such as Mason Archie might engage the beautiful in art by choice or intuition, and why viewers can still derive meaningful pleasure from such beauty even if their perceptions are ‘mediated’ by society. Scarry maintains in spite of the politics which surround beauty in aesthetic debates and approaches, humans will never be able to achieve remove from the thing itself in art or life.
She notes, “… […] At the moment when we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty…requires us ‘to give up our imaginary position at the center’…A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions…” 7
Scarry holds this remove from our consciousness as the center of things heightens our sense of justice and fairness toward all (humans, nature, society) because the arresting beauty of nature and objects remind us of the value all possess. “…Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness or (in the case of objects) quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection. Beauty, is then, a compact, or contract between the beautiful being (a person or thing) and the perceiver…”. 8
In her 2005 essay “An Argument about Beauty” 9, Susan Sontag also draws a distinction between ‘possessed’ beauty, which she aligns with society’s commodification culture, and the beauty of nature, which she believes to elevate and ennoble perceivers. “…What is beautiful reminds us of nature as such—of what lies beyond the human and the made—and thereby stimulates and deepens our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality, inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all…”.10
In our current moment as perceivers of beauty, we might hope that works representing nature, such as those here by Archie, arrest self-centeredness and reconnect us to a more comprehensive, even cosmological sense of fairness and protection for all. While never far removed from the many dubious agendas and ill-purposes for which beauty can be employed, philosophical claims for beauty such as those by Scarry and Sontag help us to justify our pleasure in it and a desire for its continued production.
Art historian John Welch is a contributing writer to IRAAA+
1.Dave Beech, ed., Documents of Contemporary Art. (London & Cambridge, MA., Whitechapel Gallery & M.I.T. Press, 2009).
2. See, Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Judgment”, (1790). Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, (1757).
3. Marcia Muelder Eaton, “Kantian and Contextual Beauty”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Winter, 1999), pp. 11-15.
4. Beech, p.14.
6. See, Arthur C. Danto, “The Abuse of Beauty”, Daedalus, Vol. 131, No. 4, Fall 2002, pp.35-56. Laurie Fendrich, “Dave Hickey’s Politics of Beauty”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2, 1013. Elaine Scarry. On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton , New Jersey: Princton University Press, 1999). Susan Sontag, “An Argument about Beauty”, Daedalus, Vol. 134, No. 4, (Fall 2005), pp. 208-213.
7. See Scarry (Beech edited volume), p. 42.
9. Susan Sontag, “An Argument about Beauty”, Daedalus, Vol. 134, No. 4, (Fall 2005), pp. 208-213.
10. Ibid, p. 213.