What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

October 29, 2020

Rachael Browning
Minor Adjustments
Moskowitz Bayse
October 10 - November 7, 2020

Rachael Browning

There is beauty in the chaos of nature. Right angles and straight lines are unexpected in the natural landscape where meandering vines and trees askew signify a welcome unpredictability. While some artists have been motivated to try to improve upon nature, others have devised projects that changed one's perception on how nature might be framed. For his series, Altered Landscapes produced in the 1970s, John Pfahl positioned the camera using specific vantage points, juxtaposing aspects of the natural landscape with his own constructed grids and geometric shapes. Contemporary artist Chris Engman uses photography to reconstruct outdoor environments indoors, exploring the ways a camera can create the illusion of three-dimensional space. Land artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer permanently altered the actual landscape: Smithson creating a spiral jetty in Utah and Heizer cutting two enormous trenches into a mesa in Neveda, among other interventions.

In Minor Adjustments, Rachael Browning presents sculptures based on the materials she uses in her photographs as well as photographs that document her temporary alterations to the natural landscape. To create these images, she intervenes in the environment by making slight adjustments to trees, rocks, flowers and expanses of ground using rope, turn buckles, straps and miscellaneous hardware in primary colors. Her goal is to make these things appear "level." Each adjustment is photographed from mid-distance, centering the alteration in a square frame, including some of the foreground and/or background for context. While the set ups are complex and elaborate, the motivation behind these actions remains elusive.

For #75 01, (all photographs 2020), Browning constructed a wooden and metal armature to straighten a Joshua Tree. She fashioned blue straps around the trunk to nudge it to the right in order to straighten it. A blue level is positioned against the lower portion of the tree, indicating that it is now "level." A similar apparatus is constructed to adjust the cactus in #79 05. Here, pieces of wood, protective pink foam, a red-orange strap, various hardware and red rope are used to reposition the prickly cactus. The plant is strapped to a counterweight -- a concrete filled red-orange bucket to keep it balanced. Although a red level confirms the success of the adjustment, this cactus now appears as an anomaly in a field of unadjusted cacti.

In addition to adjusting desert plants, Browning also straightens flowers, (#78 08) and urban trees (#52 07 and #77 11). She even levels rocks (#93 01), balancing a larger piece of granite on top of a smaller one with a pliable orange stretch strap until it is parallel with the horizon. Photographs #49 11, #81 02 and #54 03 depict long horizontal levels placed within hand-made shallow trenches carved away from expanses of sand, dirt, rocks and leaves. There is a formal beauty to the images. Browning is deliberate about what color hardware she uses and how it interacts with the colors in the natural environment.

Brownings photographs capture sculptures created for the purpose of a photograph. They are humorous and curious simultaneously. While they have a precedent in land art, conceptual photography and performance, they also call attention to an environmental taboo --who and why would anyone try to adjust a flower, rock or cactus to reposition it so it aligns with the man-made notion of level? While the conceptual basis of Browning's photographa is rooted in absurdity, there is also something seductive about the images. They seem all wrong, but logical as an experiment: an elaborate intervention with an ironic poke at purism.

One assumes that Browning leaves the landscape as she found it, removing all traces of her presence. The photographs document her 'minor adjustments' to nature -- artworks that may or may not improve upon that which already exists.