Forget what you knew or thought you knew about landscape painting in the traditional sense. When you enter Inside the Forces of Nature, Athena LaTocha’s installation at MoCNA, consider yourself a part of it. You can’t necessarily say that about an idyllic Hudson River School painting, or feel it in the moody, wild tones of a landscape by Caspar David Friedrich. Those landscapes are like pictures of moments in time, looking back to a day long past — or an attempt to parse nature, to reduce it to the dimensions of the framed canvas where it can be measured in terms of inches. LaTocha, an Alaska-born artist who lives and works in New York City, offers a more visceral experience. “For a number of years now I’ve been working with land motifs, land imagery,” she told Pasatiempo. “All of my work is about being immersed in these spaces, these environments. Sometimes I’m reluctant to use the word ‘landscape’ because there’s a certain kind of genre, a certain kind of concept or ideology when you think about the idea of landscape. It connotes a kind of reverence or allusion to something. It’s usually something that you’re looking at or looking upon. It’s this view or window into another world, a natural world or an industrial one.”
Inside the Forces of Nature contains a large-scale, floor-to-ceiling ink wash on paper called La Bajada Red that runs along one wall, from corner to corner. It’s an abstract work made with nontraditional tools. LaTocha uses things she’s gathered and has on hand to make her marks. The work was created flat on the ground inside her studio. She used the planks of the makeshift scaffold so she could stand over the piece while she worked; these eventually got used as tools to push the ink around. Bricks, stones, and a shredded tire salvaged from an Alaskan highway took the place of brush and palette knife. Earth gathered from La Bajada Hill got mixed in with the ink. Its dark and rich tones were created when the ink was left to pool and dry over the course of days, or to gather and run at its own pace, layered thick on the paper in some areas, and thin in others. If it cracks and flakes here and there, LaTocha is unconcerned, because it reflects a sense of the Earth in an ever-changing state, formed by geological processes. “This past summer I had the opportunity to do a lot of site visits across the United States where I traveled to a lot of national monuments and national parks, looking at the Badlands, looking at Devils Tower, looking at the geological phenomena, how the Earth has been shaped, the volcanic and geothermic activity, looking at tectonic plates and the push and pull, how earth is this living thing.”
LaTocha’s unusual approach to mark-making frees her from the restraints and limitations of brushwork, and spontaneity is privileged over planning. “I’m using all of these different techniques and processes that encourage the work to make itself,” she said. “[Willem] de Kooning says painters paint. They’re not thinking, they’re painting.” The result in her work is a sense of landscape conveyed without the use of specific references to time or place, and imagery that hints at geological features but without being explicit. A thin horizontal line runs through the center from one side to the other, but the dense areas of congealed ink and lighter patches, which add contrast and depth, are heedless of this line. There is no definite representation of earth and sky and the separation that exists between them. The large scale makes you feel like you’re a part of it, not as observer but as a participant in this mutable environment.
“An aboriginal friend of mine from Australia talked about the aboriginal relationship to the land,” she said. “It’s seen as something that you’re inside of or you’re passing through but not looking upon. It’s about looking and thinking about environments in these types of ways. There’s different types of phenomena that occur in nature. There’s visual phenomena, different sounds, tastes, or smells. I had the opportunity to come out here and do a site visit, measure the gallery, and get a better understanding of the space and how people are going to come into it. I took that into consideration when building the work. I went out to Tent Rocks as well. When you’re out here, you smell the piñon trees. You smell the sagebrush. That all becomes embedded in the psyche or the psychology of your relationship to these spaces.”