Jennifer Rife’s show “Here and Gone” quietly steers its viewer to the center of non-attachment. It is impossible to attach to the images because it’s unclear where we are or to what we would be attaching. Viewers witness unknown environments in which we find ourselves floating.
This ambiguity is compelling. Are we looking at line drawings, photos or painting? And what exactly are the objects in these images on paper and photos projected onto the gallery walls? Focusing in, it becomes clear that the objects photographed in the landscape are beautifully crafted, alluring abstracted lines. Only three materials are used: red dogwood tree twigs, copper and steel.
The objects are land-based sculptural installations created and photographed by Cheyenne artist Jennifer Rife. Her work follows in and jumps off from a long tradition of site-specific, land-based art made by artists like Robert Smithson (who created the Spiral Jetty), Nancy Holt, Jeanne Claude and Christo, Robert Irwin, Donald Judd and James Turrell. However, there is a significant 21st century twist to this work.
We are never permitted to see the actual object that sits, is temporarily planted or thrown into a landscape that Rife visits. A lyrical ambiguity continues through the show, which is exhibited in the gallery at Artworks Loveland.
We see what could be a spine in the body of the land or, antithetically, sutures or wounds; the land’s blood seeping through the stitches. The shocks of red on a pure white snow pull us into the small image simply installed.
At the other end of the gallery are two large-scale spaces of wall projections. One projection focuses on the beginning of the day, the other, the end. This is of specific significance because the work has been created in a 48-hour period in the foothills of Masonville, Colorado. What we are viewing is one day’s work — a documentation of moments in the life of the artist, the land they inhabit and an object of the artist’s making.
The same objects we see on the small wall works change dramatically in the large projected photos. The scale becomes dramatic. We can see a blurred horizon in the distance and the small objects that were filling the picture plane and drawing us in at one end of the gallery are now towering over us at the other end of the space. We are dwarfed.
The only way we are able to truly find our bearings in this work is through geographical coordinates that are the titles of the work. If we are curious enough to research, we will find the exact location of the work is no longer there.
This brilliantly articulated work manifests easily as metaphors for our lives. Rife is a veteran at conjuring a particular ephemeral view that we cannot grasp but yet is hauntingly familiar. The objects she makes resemble bodies living on the land. As we disappear, so do they. In their case, lifespans rest with Rife, who finds materials, assembles them, places them in the landscape, photographs them and removes them from that space before dismantling them.
The viewer never sees the actual object. Rife never exhibits the object. This perhaps is the most intriguing element of the work. The only proof that the object existed is a single photograph Rife creates. Even the individual photos are printed as they were captured with no digital manipulation. Here and gone are the objects, the idea, the location and the process.
Her interaction with the land is a blessing of sorts; a recognition of its power. The land is crowned, photographed and then left, exactly as it was found, with no trace of her actions.
Her work shows us that life is always fleeting as is the environment in which it exists, and if we are not careful we can be destroyed by what we take and what we throw away. Leaving no trace is at the root of this haunting ephemeral work — our bodies, our land, our wounds, sutures, scarring.
Rife gives us a dream in one-of-a-kind digital images in curious abstraction and juxtaposition to the earth. The work is lyrical and thoughtful, honoring a lineage of land art without imposing upon the land. This is the new direction, one that rethinks seminal works like Spiral Jetty — which is, in fact, a scar on the land despite its seductiveness.
I recall Lucy Lippard commenting on the fact that land art did nothing to make the land look better. That the land was fine without the work. What is it then; actually, that Jennifer’s work is conjuring in its momentary existence?
“When we extract resources from the earth to power our lives, we leave scars,” Rife says about the work. “Through my practice I ask if it is possible to leave a trace rather than a scar … consider what we take from and leave on the land.”
Rife not only points to the awareness of our scarring of the land on which we live but leaves the viewer with only a trace of the object and the land remains untouched. She could push this perspective even further conceptually.
Her avoidance of scarring the land points to the reality of what is actually occurring as we devour our resources to the point of our own demise. Above all, her unwillingness to give in to audiences requesting to see the objects that she creates begs a profound question: What if the thing that you desire most, that you are attached to, that you long to see, is not there?
Rife presents an oppositional aesthetic force that creates a desire in the viewer that will never be fulfilled. We are left objectless, meeting ourselves as we float in an open space that is, in truth, our destiny.
“Here and Gone” is on display at Artworks Loveland in Loveland, Colorado, through Feb. 29.
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.