The Middle Landscape


There is an image I like to show my environmental history classes at the beginning of every semester. It acts as a sort of litmus test to gage their existing attitudes towards the subject matter we will be spending the next fifteen weeks examining: human beings interaction with the natural world.  George Innes’ 1856 painting The Lackawanna Valley depicts a pastoral scene with a lone figure lounging in the foreground, gazing at a relatively innocuous roundhouse and railroad in the middle distance.  The harmlessness of the railroad is put into question, however, by a stand of trees that have been reduced to stumps, one assumes, to provide material for the railroad.  Whether the students see sublimity, nostalgia, pro-industrial boosterism or a lament for destroyed nature tells me a lot about where we are beginning our journey.

In 1964, cultural historian Leo Marx famously described the artistic depiction of the tension between the pastoral ideal and technological innovation as “the middle landscape.”  In Marx’s definition, the middle landscape was a “new, distinctly American, post-romantic, post-romantic , industrial version of the pastoral design.” This series builds on Marx’s assessment and pushes it to its extreme. Capturing graphic and clean scenes, often of what might be considered the natural word, I create a calm space for the viewer enter. Yet by placing the focal point—sometimes banal, other times more sinister—in both the middle of the scene and in the middle distance, I ask the viewer to take up the place of the lounging figure in Innes' painting and contemplate the object's relationship to its surroundings.