Nancy Holt at the Graham Foundation

I just returned from a weekend in rural northern Kentucky and southern Indiana. The primary reason for my trip was to attend the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot, and event Jeriah and I have been attending on a nearly yearly basis since moving to Chicago. On our way back from there we spent the afternoon at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. While driving and hiking around, we spotted a rare Copper-bellied water snake, a baby Garter snake, two turtles (most likely Red-Eared Sliders), Canadian geese, a Great Blue Heron, a couple un-identified birds of prey, and numerous small songbirds. We gathered acorns, which we brought home, and out of which I’m going to attempt to make acorn cakes (after a great deal of leeching). It was a windy day at Muscatatuck, and I stopped every few minuets to listen to the uninterrupted sound of the wind in the treetops.

It’s days and experiences like that which keep me sane, and remind me why, as a kid growing up in rural Northern California, I staunchly declared I would NEVER live in a city. Well now I do, and I’m still not convinced of the glory of urban living. Sure, I love having an art scene full of interesting people, venues, and activities, and you can’t beat the diversity of food available in all the different markets in the city (I don’t go out to eat much so the appeal of Chicago’s restaurant and bar diversity doesn’t matter all that much to me), but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be happier out in the woods.

As I drove down Lake Shore Drive at 7 a.m. this morning, listening to Dead Can Dance and watching the sunrise, I was trying to figure out what I should write about. I’ve felt overwhelmed by Chicago’s art scene lately, and I’ve been having a hard time staying inspired by and interested in what is going on. Co-Prosperity School is on its between term breaks so I don’t have my weekly Chi-Art intensive fishbowl to keep me going, and I’ve missed a lot of openings in the past month due to sickness, lack of a car (Jeepie met an untimely end thanks to some dude in a Prius who couldn’t pay attention to traffic) and general fatigue and oversaturation with art. Who knew that would happen? Well, actually, a lot of people warned me of as much. I’m especially sad that I missed the show of the Hornswaggler Collection at Co-Prosperity Sphere. That night, having completely forgotten the amazing art, coctails, and food that was happening at Co-Pro, I Jeriah and I hitched a ride over the Graham Foundation to see Nancy Holt: Sightlines.

Holt, one of the famous cadre of monumental earthwork and sculptural artists of the 60s and 70s, is still alive. Someone that evening asked me if she was, and while at the exhibition, I realized I had no idea. Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know she is alive and well (or at least was last time the Wiki was updated) and living in her beloved Southwest. The show was phenomenal, possibly one of the best I’ve seen this year. I’ve only had passing exposure to Holt’s work over the course of my artistic education, so the opportunity to see and hear such a volume of information on her early works was very enlightening. A true character of the utopian/dystopian zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s, Holt work abandoned the urban, pop-culturally obsessed tropes of many of her contemporaries, opting instead for the rural, nature, and the cosmos. In doing so, her work is simultaneously timeless, sooo 60s-70s hippie, and absolutely contemporary.

In creating works dealing with the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and planets, Holt aligned herself with curious and innovative human minds over the entire course of human history. Innumerable ancient cultures and civilizations built structures for the observation of or alignment with important celestial bodies. Understanding the movements of the cosmos, and their repercussions on earth, were essential to human progress, governing travel, agriculture, and the passage of time itself to name but a few important areas. Holt’s works, especially her large desert pieces, were instantly monumental, visually connecting to some of the most ancient human structures.

At the same time, her works were extremely contemporary to the times they were made, and continue to be salient today. Issues surrounding land use, resource production, and human’s place in the natural and industrial world are as important today as they were back in the early 70s, if not more so. We are living in a world that is economically, socially, and ecologically on edge, and this exhibition reflecting on Holt’s important early works helps highlight the ongoing importance of ecology in that equation.

One part of Holt’s work I have yet to directly mention, but which is most of the reason for the writing, is her dedication to encouraging the public to experience, and contemplate, the natural world. Though she has works in both extremely isolated locales and unban areas, all of her works ask you to consider the nature, if you will, of your surroundings. They ask what it means to be human, to be on earth, and to exist in the cosmos. That is why I truly loved the show, and was simultaneously saddened by it. I wanted to be out there, on the shoreline, in the desert, beneath the trees, experiencing the works in person, rather than mediated through photographs and film. I think that’s what Holt would have wanted as well. So here is my prescription: drop by the Graham Foundation before December 17th to see Nancy Holt: Sightlines. Then get out of Chicago for a while, at least a day. Go somewhere and listen to the wind the trees.

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