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Alan Sonfist: American Earth Landscape

Oct 26 - Dec 4, 2021

Alan Sonfist

American Earth Landscape, 2019-2021

Primal Earth sealed on canvas

10 x 15 ft. (3 x 4.6 m.)

Alan Sonfist
When autumn arrives in New York, as fallen leaves decay into a dark sludge staining the concrete, does the earth remember how it felt before our touch? Shin Gallery invites you to help trigger nature’s muscle memory through its latest solo exhibition of works by American land artist Alan Sonfist (b. 1946).

In the mid-1960’s, a time when the inorganic industrialism of museum exhibitions like “Primary Structures” ruled and artists were erecting metal and concrete monuments to the spreading urbanization—and natural destruction—of our earth, Alan Sonfist was (un)paving the way for environmental land art in New York and beyond. Tracing its origins to a deep childhood affinity for the dwindling hemlock grove that was once the crown of the South Bronx where he grew up, Sonfist’s art explores the relationship between humankind and the earth. His site-specific installations, drawings, photographs, and “Earth Paintings” weigh the ramifications of our ever-increasing ecological footprint, seeking to reintroduce the world to an environment that predates the settler cannibalization of these lands we call home.

To this day, the earth of our planet continues to be destroyed. Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been an increase in soil degradation, through clearcutting, the introduction of industrial chemicals and waste into the earth and overbuilding in pristine areas. Despite the rapidly mounting number of environmental crises occurring across the globe, there is a lack of urgency across the world’s wider population in enacting change.

One of the originators of the Land Art movement, Alan Sonfist has devoted his career to identifying and manifesting natural phenomena through art, visualizing the impact that global-scale environmental issues have wreaked on our world. Having witnessed in his childhood the destruction of a virgin forest, Sonfist has spent his entire life trying to recapture those memories through his artworks. In his initial proposal for the public land art project Time Landscape (1965), he indicated that he would be bringing back the original soil to the site, in remembrance of his time spent in the ancient hemlock forest of New York. This work was ultimately materialized in the 1978 Time Landscape “park,” located at the corner of Houston Street and LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village.

Since the late 1960s, Sonfist has been collecting earth throughout the world. He has indexed these earth samples on canvas and archived them in various time capsule and containers. In 1968, Sonfist first explored these artistic strategies in his Microorganism Landscape paintings, in which he covered the canvas with earth to preserve the microbes within the canvas. There are more microorganisms in a handful of earth than there are humans on the planet. Microorganisms in the soil are encapsulated on the canvas that supports the American Earth Landscape (2019-2021), visualizing the diversity of unique textures and colors of each earth sample collected throughout America. As such the work is at once a map and time capsule, containing an array of biological entities from around the country. These soil samples embedded in Sonfist's art may one day contain genetic information that will no longer be found in the realm of nature.

The central and largest work in the exhibition, American Earth Landscape expands upon Sonfist's longstanding interest in nature and land as artistic media. The piece both visualizes and encapsulates the earth of America at this crucial moment in the planet's history. For this monumental work, Sonfist invited people throughout America to collect and send samples of primal earth from their areas, from which he then created a mural – a portrait of the earth of America, using all the samples of earth to represent the sites from which they came.

Alan Sonfist has said, “Within the rapidly growing urban/industrial sprawl, the indigenous earth and vegetation is rapidly disappearing. If we continue in this direction, we are reaching the point of no return, where all virgin and primal soil will have disappeared from the planet. My art makes visible the essence of the Earth.”

Sonfist is represented in major museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Dallas Museum of Art, Texas; Princeton University Museum, New Jersey; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Ludwig Museum, Aachen, Germany.

Selected exhibitions include Leo Castelli Gallery, New York; Documenta VI, Kassel; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. His works are included in many international public collections such as Cologne Sculpture Park, Germany and Villa Celle, Tuscany, Italy.



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