One of the key privileges afforded to eighteenth-century aristocratic guests of London’s Chiswick House was the opportunity to survey its prodigious gardens. The further one wandered from the Palladian revival villa, the more immersed they became in a menagerie of deliberately configured and seamlessly integrated landscaping elements. Intermittent paths, trees, ponds, and hills simulated an unplanned and unspoiled world—an ersatz Eden. That is, until a visitor stumbled upon the “ha-ha,” a recessed retaining wall built to deter livestock from entering the main lawn on one side while preserving an unbroken view from the other side. Concealed from the perspective of the house, the wall’s dual status as a delimiting edifice and a carefully executed optical illusion made it emblematic of a fundamental Enlightenment-era dialectic. On one hand, it reflected impulses to apprehend the natural world as a containable, proprietary dominion. On the other, it upheld a deference to landscape’s capacities for the sublime, the apotheosis of active viewership at the time.
As this implementation of a ha-ha suggests, Chiswick’s idyllic grandeur was highly motivated. Its grounds were established as a total environment, intricately constructed through a constellation of perspectival encounters. William Kent, the gardens’ designer, developed these Arcadian ideals primarily through studying the work of French painters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. He was particularly taken by their landscapes that set mythic narratives among hazily lit cliffs, forests, and architectural ruins. These visions of magnificent tranquility helped to drive a strong current of sentimental classicism among eighteenth-century British aristocracy and Lord Burlington, Chiswick’s architect, was no exception. Once immersed on the property, occupants were meant to be transported to an imagined, originary past.
John Seal’s recent work takes up some of the most characteristic tropes of these historic utopian sensibilities, shedding light on their timelessness, their inevitability, and their folly. In these paintings, figural subjects have been evacuated altogether. Human presence instead emerges through what has been left in the garden. Verdant, richly hued flora permeate the visual field of almost every work. Like Chiswick’s transfixing environmental theater, these blossoms signify abundance, but their beguiling arrangements also imply the labor required for their cultivation and maintenance. Latent vulnerability simmers beneath their fastidious loveliness. Without a person in sight, they demand both an appreciative audience and continued upkeep, neither of which may ever come.
These lavish plantings are juxtaposed with architectural remains, which recall Poussin and Lorrain’s signature ruins, as well as those of Giovanni Battista Piranesi or Hubert Robert. Perhaps these languishing structures were once new and functional, but in their dilapidated states, they offer capitalist serviceability only in the form of aesthetic commodification—as painted images. To an eighteenth-century eye, their value might have been predicated on how harmoniously they balanced their environs, but Seal’s tabulation wryly deconstructs this metric. Some of the built elements seem quite pleasingly integrated, with vines snaking up stone walls and overgrowth visible through door and window apertures. However, the longer we sustain our look, the more perspectivally disjointed they become.
In The Arms That Enfold us Are Not Ours to Control, a crumbling brick facade juts out improbably from the lower right corner of the image. Vestiges of a two-story house in Maybe More Mouse Than Man contain a storage cabinet, an overturned chair, a work of art propped against a doorway: all evidence of former occupancy. Yet, the positioning of the structure—abutting a low stone wall at an uncanny angle—emphasizes its flatness. In both cases, these deteriorating buildings resemble theater backdrops, reminding us just how staged “naturalized” scenes can be. If Kent’s Chiswick gardens served as an attempt to instantiate utopian myth, Seal’s works follow these attempts to their logical conclusions: they manifest fragmentary projections of societal ills and dictums. If left to proliferate unchecked, solipsistic desire, capitalist aspiration, and a Sysiphean will to command the earth will enact self-fulfilling prophecies yielding much more idle than idyll.
By the late 1700s, Chiswick and the English landscape style gardens that it inspired had become emblematic of the Picturesque, or “a quality capable of being illustrated by painting.” Lorrain’s work was so influential to this discourse that artists and tourists even tried to impose his painterly style onto their own outdoor experiences. By capturing a portion of landscape in a small dark mirror called a “Claude glass,” one could produce a warm-toned image mimicking the sunlit glow that imparted depth to Lorrain’s vistas. As this instrument’s popularity through the Enlightenment era suggests, cultural investment in views of the natural world were shifting from the mediation of the painter’s eye to the mediation of the beholder’s eye itself.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century, vectors of influence governing British ways of seeing nature began to collapse into one another. Initially, artists translated their idealized visions of the natural world through painting. These paintings then began to guide the topographies of Picturesque gardens. Later, tourists engineered their views of nature to closely resemble paintings. Within this palimpsest, class-based access to artistic interpretations of nature began to transform. Artists and collectors were losing exclusive proximity to evolving tastes for landscape pictures and non-specialists were gaining increasing agency in their production and consumption.
This phenomenon expanded in the nineteenth-century United States, where competing notions of what constituted a utopian vision of nature responded to preeminent European queues. The Transcendentalist movement revolted against Enlightenment’s materialist and empirical logics in favor of self-reliance in communion with natural forces. After 1840, gains in middle class leisure time and the rise of mass visual culture propagated endless opportunities for consuming nature as an image-object. Parlors and dining rooms began to clutter with reproduced printed media including maps, periodicals, books, and, notably, chromolithographic copies of romantic landscape paintings and still lives. To the dismay of some intellectual observers, middle class households unapologetically celebrated the consumption of idealized natural scenes and fruit bowl imagery in their newly “democratic” forms.
Legacies of these debates converge at a chimeric nexus in Seal’s paintings: the spectacular plenitude of the garden meets the manufactured comforts of the parlor. The envisaged promised lands of past Western societies slip into post-consumer pastiche. Electric lamps, leather armchairs, and giant teacups become garden fixtures—however long they last. As per Jean Baudrillard, the nineteenth century became the first time that happiness had to be culturally “measurable in terms of objects and signs,” marked by the amassing of personal possessions Seal’s idiosyncratic arrangements follow the trajectory of this sentiment to Eden itself, and in this Eden, utopian worldviews are seen through the lens of staged domestic frivolity.
A triangulation of light sources hover before a manicured garden in The Light that I Saw by Was the Light that I Was. A peach-toned candle stands burning and dripping in the foreground, flanked by two identical decorative table lamps. They claim space above, or in front of, a variety of flourishing trees and shrubbery. This garden cannot be seen without seeing the candle and the lamps before it. Proffering all the earthly delights of the English Picturesque, it becomes an airless background overlaid with household objects. In The Ripples Return as Echoes of Another Shore, the motif of the table lamp resurfaces. Its irradiation gradually fades towards the top of its floral background, identifying it as the image’s sole light source. In both of these works, Lorrain’s soft sunlight has transmogrified into symmetrical arrays of post-industrial illumination. The landscape’s dramatic splendor has flattened into horizonless scenery. The resplendent Arcadian dream has been sublimated into elegantly consumerist picture puzzles.
Like the decorative lamps, a range of motifs recur across multiple canvases, gesturing to the serial nature of their commerical dissemination and consumption. Living room chairs block garden pathways or sink to the bottom of a pond. Apples, bananas, grapes, and pears can be found in a plastic-wrapped basket, farcically suspended in front of tree branches, or in outsize arrangements among vibrant flowerbeds. Elements of the still life, the lithographic copy of the still life, the last-minute gift, and the household produce bowl become interchangeable signifiers. They’re equally devoid of their social value, steeped in purposelessness. Now it’s their destiny to be subsumed under the generic term “fruit,” which may never recover its primeval allure.
The artist situates these and other household objects—furniture, dishes, appliances—in positions that trigger impressions of incongruity. Spatially and logically, they’re always off-kilter. Temporally, they gesture in every direction at once. Time moves neither forward nor backward because its linearity, like the objects themselves, has become defunct. Everything and nothing is anachronistic in a paradise where aimless leisure perpetuates a recursive loop. What these objects do possess is a refusal to coalesce—with their environments and with themselves. The gratification of sublimity is indefinitely delayed.
This effect is thrown into striking relief in Study for a Monument to Man's Triumph over Nature, in which a gravity-defying tower of kitschy teacups stretches upward from the ground. As the tower ascends, the bottom three rows duplicate themselves, suggesting the infinite height of a magic beanstalk. Two of the cups, one decorated with a bouquet and one with a sailboat, have nothing to support their weight, yet they implausibly linger. They all appear uniformly two-dimensional as if pasted on the canvas surface like reproduced cutouts. Collectively, their irrational “house of cards” configuration recalls the precarious thriving of the trees, bushes, and flowerbeds in Seal’s other works. If there are no humans in Elysium, who will do the gardening? Are these cups actually levitating if no one witnesses their spectacle?
Behind the cups, a forest glade stretches towards the horizon, bordered by tall trees. As in several other works, the background is composed in thick, short, impressionistic brushstrokes. Given its sharp contrast with the nearly photographic realism of the cups, the landscape verges on abstraction. The problem of abstraction came into play at Chiswick as well: Kent’s approach was considered a radical departure from the aesthetic precedent set by the exhaustive geometry of Versailles, an exemplar of performative Western efforts to conquer nature. Chiswick’s garden design was also abstracting, but by other means: though it appeared “untouched,” it was a phantasmagoria of contrived viewing experiences. Visitors’ use of the Claude glass added yet another layer of perceptual abstraction to their experience. Seal’s paintings gesture to the absurdity underlying this dichotomy between nature’s “unruliness” and societies’ attempts to artificially emplace order. In his scenes, impositions of control beget existential chaos and withering punchlines. At some point, the joke was on humans, but for better or worse, they’ve exited the stage.
In 1712, English essayist Joseph Addison likened landscape to portraiture. Musing on how a landowner might lay out his property, he wrote, “he might make a pretty landscape of his own possessions.” In Addison’s mind, the manner in which a person planned their gardens was tantamount to a landscape painting. By viewing that painting, one could determine the estimation of the person himself. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nature gained lasting currency as saleable, mediated imagery. This imagery eventually became a building block of American class-based identity construction. Seal’s work playfully portends the quiet disaster wreaked by the evolution of this capitalist ethos under the guise of expressing personal taste. If, as Baudrillard contended, “what you really collect is always yourself,” we might know ourselves better by examining how and why our pleasures and comforts emerge from earthly consumption, control, and extraction. Then, we might be better prepared to find new meaning, new possibilities, and new orientations in the landscapes of our own making.
© Text Jeanne Dreskin