A Future Voyage to Cotopaxi

August 3, 2017

To continue the dialogue between contemporary and historical artists in the exhibition Overlook: Teresita Fernández Confronts Frederic Church at Olana (held at Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, NY, May 14-November 5, 2017), we invited artist Alberto Baraya to choose a work from the exhibition as a vehicle for personal reflection on the theme of landscape. Baraya’s “Herbário de plantas artificiais” (Herbarium of Artificial Plants) echoes the botanical expeditions of 19th-century European “viajeros.”

Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi (1853). Oil on canvas. 24.8 x 36.8 cm

Last year I embarked on a pilgrimage. I left the city at dusk, taking the secondary highway that runs parallel to the river, passing alongside lights, hotel signs, ever fewer traffic lights and the profiles of small buildings and stores beneath the shadows of the low trees that darkened the road. Back home they call a sky like this the “deer’s sun,” with clouds the color of fire due to the way the light grazes them. At its zenith, the sky is a light blue hue stretched across the horizon, growing ever darker. Heaps of clouds take the form of cotton candy. In the water, a bloat of hippos prepares for night’s arrival. Only the brilliant sound of the frogs reveals the unbearable cold of the lagoon.

The day before, I had been in the North American landscape gallery at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A solitary boat traversing the icy waters of Alaska at dusk. Large sailboats on the horizon arriving to port, bringing with them stores of European products and news. Mountains above a lake, crops at the edge of a river, pastoral scenes of cattle in the placid shade of oak trees, ordered bales of hay that, like the central characters in a theatrical work, perform their compliance to the earnest farmer. An encounter between two individuals on a getaway to a clearing deep in the forest. Views of that other mountain, far off to the east, whose startling natural beauty is contemplated by townsfolk. Those pictorial images are there so that we can see ourselves within the splendor of nature, within the expanse of the terrain. Here, among other paintings, one can also find recreations of historical episodes related to the heroes of independence, and to the heroic explorers of territories in the “far west.” There are indications in these landscapes not only of a Calvinist admiration for nature as the work of the Creator and a city dweller’s astonishment before the virginity of the natural world or the poignant simplicity of country life, but they also constitute evidence that, even at that time, there were warning signs of the potential transformation and destruction of nature at the hands of human intervention.

In his written descriptions of the regions of the world he traversed, Alexander von Humboldt verified the inseparable interrelations between the territories, oceans, bodies of water, animals, humans, and climate on the planet.[1] It is he who also warned his contemporaries of the dangerous transformations that human actions could cause to the components of Nature. In the introduction to his book Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, Humboldt dedicates several pages to pointing out that it is the arts that are responsible for his scientific and exploratory pursuits, and he offers an invitation to the voyage as a fundamental way of knowing. What better incentive could a painter want? At that time, artistic and scientific knowledge intertwined harmoniously in lecture halls and experimental laboratories in the Academies of Arts and Sciences, and all scientific expeditions included the critical presence of a visual artist. Humboldt’s invitation was seconded by hundreds of artists, who couldn’t help but become “traveler artists.”[2]

There are several questions I want to set out with the Estudios comparados de paisaje [Comparative Landscape Studies] project. For many years, I’ve been making small-format oil studies while traveling through different points of the region’s geography and through the locations in which I carried out the “expeditions” for the Herbario de plantas artificiales [Herbarium of Artificial Plants],[3] and for which I gathered taxons and specimens of artificial flora for my collection, using en plein air as a method for obtaining data on a determined reality. A considerable advantage to this technique is the fact that it is a language that is easily recognized and “spoken” widely and popularly, thus avoiding exclusivity. This practice requires physical passage through the landscapes and the use of a traditional technique/technology of representation that today inevitably elicits comparisons to its most immediate parallel, photography. These exercises are undertaken by the figure of a romantic traveler as an allusive character referencing the historical conditions of discovery, conquest and colonization of “new” territories. Paraphrasing English writer Thomas de Quincey,[4] I have designated this method of working while displaced “the expedition considered as one of the fine arts,” a broad title that brings together the ideas of artistic practice under the conditions of the voyage.

During the travels and expeditions for the Herbarium of Artificial Plants project, I used my learning about scientific methodology as a strategy for legitimating artistic practice. Taking up Humboldt’s invitation to obtain and produce knowledge in the development of artistic practice, I committed myself to extracting data from reality—from social, geographical, and political spaces—under the pretext of a study of artificial botany, gathering data in the form of “artificial taxons”—most of them “Made in China”—as well as the dates and sites of collection. At the same time, I committed myself to gathering documentary images related to the different uses of plastic plants in daily life in society. The collection of said uses is compiled in the format of a photographic archive (InSitu Archive of the Herbarium of Artificial Plants) under my own personal categories of classification, attending to the differences and similarities found through detailed study of the images. The hypothesis for this whole set of Expeditions was to obtain another type of knowledge through artistic practice, one that was definitively different from knowledge obtained through science.

Alberto Baraya, Cymbidium V (2009) from the series Herbario de plantas artificiales. Found object and drawing on cardstock. 115 x 81 cm
Alberto Baraya, Archivo "InSitu" (2000–2017) from the series Herbario de plantas artificiales. 2,300 color photographs in metal cabinet. 51 x 45 x 18 cm; each photo 10 x 15 cm

In 2011, I proposed the first Estudios comparados modernistas [Comparative Modernist Studies] project, which drew a rough comparison between artificial plants and the urban experiment of Brasilia by architect Oscar Niemeyer. The remains of that pilgrimage were consigned to the documentary format of black and white photography, with detailed excursions to capture “Made in China” plastic flowers in urban settings. Here, in place of a laboratory for plant experimentation and observation, comparative tactics enabled me to bring together architecture and the urban scenes of a modernist utopia.

Alberto Baraya, Estudios comparados modernistas—Tres poderes (2011). Black and white photograph. 28 x 20 cm

Just three years after the birth of painter Frederic Edwin Church, U.S. president James Monroe quoted president John Quincy Adams, repeating in his 1823 address to congress the paradigmatic phrase “America for the Americans.”[5] At 26 years of age, taking up Humboldt’s challenge as well as this additional “invitation” offered by the Monroe doctrine, Church decided to take on America’s tropics himself. Over the course of his voyage to Colombia and Ecuador, he amassed valleys and rivers, lagoons, volcanoes and mountains, palm trees, and wetlands, drawn and accumulated on pieces of paper, oil paint, and watercolor sketches. Taken as a whole, they might seem like a list of conquests: a view of the Magdalena River, Chimborazo, a drawing of Cotopaxi,[6] a sketch of the tamaca palm (or corozo), a cross amidst a bucolic landscape, a view of the Pándi Valley, Quindío pass, a bridge over the Combeima River in Ibagué, a sketch of Champán. In a similar manner, the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of paintings, under the attentive eye of a capital manager, would also form a long list of territories contemplated, conquered, and now possessed in the name of exalting of the great Nation.

With the most recent iteration of the Comparative Landscape Studies (2016-17) project, I want to contrast the Magdalena river valley (Colombia) with the Hudson river valley (New York), and incorporate the technical and political teachings of the so-called “Hudson River School.” Along with this school, I have also tried to follow the examples of the “painters of the plains” who in the early 20th century traveled about the region of Bogotá, creating paintings of bucolic and picturesque landscapes. America for the Americans? Why not? Beyond the historical details, the spirit of this phrase seems to have been reclaimed many years ago, consciously or unconsciously, by the minds of those who have traveled to the United States as part of the current migratory flows: that America, and all the Americas, for all the Americans!

The task is far-reaching and requires long-term commitment, above all because of the diverse historical and political circumstances that constitute these extensive and complex geographical areas. For the time being, and as a kind of bird’s-eye formulation, it is possible to confirm certain shared qualities.

  1. First, with regard to the idea of landscape, the concept of contemplation has been, is, and will continue to be applicable to these two geographical areas. From the position of the casual city-dwelling visitor traveling through the two valleys, the landscape is constructed as a sort of ideal space that nevertheless enjoys a certain primitive virginity, inhabited by “beauty.”
  2. Both here and elsewhere, the attempt to achieve the representation of a sublime sunset inevitably passes over into the categories of the “kitsch” or “la lobería.”
  3. In their execution, landscape paintings attempt to conform to a sort of dating and/or documentary register, which in the traveler’s hands takes the form of a visual chronicle.
  4. All paintings, wherever they may be executed, have the literary potential to be “scenic” and to play host to a variety of stories.
  5. In any given geographical location, one can find examples of the symbolization of power through the use of caged animals (public or private zoos).
  6. Both regions share the Western mentality’s spirit of “exoticism,” and this is reflected in the desire for/possession of African animals.

The pilgrim’s voyage continues. The next waypoints are Ambalema and Gramalote, descending the highway to Cambao and turning back toward the south. From there, on a clear morning, the sketched views of the Nevado del Ruíz and Nevado del Tolima, like the ones of the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. (If we reach it, if we make it there!) Unavoidable return northward, continuing on toward Honda, and crossing the river at Puerto Triunfo in order to turn away from the valley toward the city of Medellín, spending the night in the vicinity of the zoo and theme park known as Hacienda Nápoles.[7] Documentary record of the hippos.

Alberto Baraya and Jonathan Hernández, Estudios comparadaos de paisaje—Hacienda Nápoles—Lago de Chapultepec (2008–2014). Diptych (oil on canvas panel). 24.5 x 32 cm

The paintings, which started as documentary, have developed in my studio in a setting fit for the reign of exoticism. I no longer distinguish between certainty and confusion, but rather I recognize that narrations of the events of reality and fantasy breathe the same air. The elephant that carries tourists on its back is repeating the steps of Thomas Cole, saving them from exotic South American predation by the jaguar. Crossing the river at the mouth of the Atlantic, a few hippos bathe, indifferent to endurance and survival, beneath the Williamsburg Bridge. With my view peppered with mosquitos from the shore, I could just make out the girls’ theatrical dance on the back of a Thai elephant. This was the curve in the Magdalena where the ironwork, Venetian mirrors and Bostonian pianos of an old shipwrecked commercial steamer still remained submerged beneath the waters.

Alberto Baraya, Estudios Comparados de paisaje. Installation of “Elefante tailandes del río Magdalena” as a piano score at Espacio Odeon Bogotá, 2017
Alberto Baraya, Estudios Comparados de paisaje—New York/Honda (2016–2017). Oil on canvas. 80 x 35cm

This one I have to paint as a rodeo colt, injecting it with artificial life. The cebrallo of Garinosito can’t stop jumping around the pasture, where other donkeys as well as copulating tropical beasts can be seen. From Chingaza it is possible to see the enclosure that surrounds a cotton baron’s mansion where, once again, the animals are silent and protected witnesses, completely enveloped in the admiration of the visiting tourists. The profits generated through these tours cover the diet and specialized medicine the animals require.

Further north, we take Interstate 9 toward Poughkeepsie; a few kilometers further on we cross the river at Peekskill or Beacon, where we turn west toward the theme park and Welcome Center for Legoland. Record of local zoos; the view of the sunset should be similar to Thomas Cole’s in his depiction of the lakes to the south and north. Recording detailed notes on vegetation, the customs of local people, climate and other animals. If necessary, proposing to the local inhabitants a couple of approximate anthropometries.[8] (Remember to bring the measuring instrument, in order to measure the traveler.)

Alberto Baraya, Antropometrías aproximadas—Expedición Machu Picchu (Cusco, Perú, 2013). Black and white photograph. 30 x 21 cm
Alberto Baraya, Antropometrías aproximadas—Expedición Península Ibérica (Warner Park, Madrid, 2013). Black and white photograph. 30 x 21 cm.
Alberto Baraya, Elefante, jaguar y turistas en Catskills (2016). Oil on canvas. 40 x 50 cm

[1] On Alexander von Humboldt, see: The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf, Taurus, 2016.

[2] An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter – César Aira, (2005)

[3] “Herbarium of Artificial Plants” Alberto Baraya, (2002 – 2017 ongoing)

[4] Thomas de Quincey, (1785-1859) “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” 1827. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_de_Quincey

[5] On the Monroe Doctrine, see: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctrina_Monroe

[6] Cotopaxi, Ecuador, 1853. Oil on canvas, 24.8 x 36.8 cm. (9 3/4 x 14 1/2 ").  Frederic Edwin Church, (1826 –1900). Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.

[7] Hacienda Nápoles, the former domain of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (1949-1993), was where he housed a segment of his illegal enterprises as well as a private zoo stocked with exotic species.

[8] Approximate Anthropometries (2013–16), is a photographic project in which the author A.B. asks people he encounters in his travels to allow him to measure their craniums with an anthropometer. 

Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen