At first glance, Kim Keever’s images look like something out of the Hudson River School, that period in American art when painters created landscapes as pristine as Eden. Then the eye sharpens and, focusing in, notices there’s something amiss. Trees don’t grow that way. Waterfalls – even Niagara or Iguazu – aren’t so gauzy. The light is simply impossible.
It turns out the pictures aren’t paintings at all, but instead photographs of imagined landscapes. They’re a deconstruction of creation – or, as one observer has described it, “real artifice” – elaborate dioramas that echo our planet as it is.
The power of much conceptual art relies on the viewer being in on the “tricks” of the artist, and Keever’s “landscape” photographs certainly follow that method. Keever, who began his career as a painter, has earned a reputation for photographing nature scenes he builds himself. Using twigs, rocks, plaster, and plastic trees from model railroad sets, he constructs miniature topographies inside 200-gallon fish tanks. He fills the tanks with water and adds dyes, paints, and oils to create clouds and atmosphere. Then he lets his large-format camera go to work.
The result is like a sci-fi take on Albert Bierstadt, the German-American artist whose heavenly paintings of Yosemite helped mythologize the American West. This less-than-trendy influence is something Keever happily cops to. His photographs are every bit as grandiose and romantic as the old oil paintings. Yet in creating his own worlds he avoids the pitfalls of nineteenth century landscape paintings: namely, the erasure of Indigenous Peoples and the enrapture with empire. Because his scenes are both out of time and out of place they carry a powerful innocence.
As compelling as his creations may be, Keever doesn’t expect them to serve as a replacement for real wilderness. His fictional scenes are intended to spur a renewed affection for our actual environment. As he told an interviewer: “I hope to help the viewer appreciate nature for itself, for its own sake as it exists.… Ultimately, I hope that people are inspired to help preserve nature.”
This could sound naïve: A simulacrum rarely has the force of the original. But it may also be the perfect statement for an Avatar age in which the most invigorating “nature” experience many people have occurs in the luminescent forest of a multiplex fantasy world. Through a restoration of wonder, Keever makes us hunger for breathtaking vistas. Turns out we might just have to make the world unbelievable to encourage people to save the real thing.
Kim Keever’s work has been shown at galleries throughout North America and Europe. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York MOMA, and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC have exhibited his work, which is currently on display at the Kinz + Tillou gallery in New York City.