On view in the midst of new creations made for Rachel Rose’s current gallery show in New York are works of a very different vintage: paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries in England, all on loan from the Yale Center for British Art. The older works informed Rose’s new ones (made in mixed media including film, painting, sculpture, and gravures), and they coexist as if no time has passed between them in the context of a vision currently being exhibited at Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea.
The centerpiece of the show is Enclosure (2019), a 30-minute film set in 17th-century rural England during the time of the Enclosure Acts—”a series of legal maneuvers,” an exhibition description reads, “that seized communally used farmlands and privatized property ownership.” To make the period piece, Rose called on inspiration from historical paintings she had first come to know as a student—with a certain degree of sleight-of-hand.
“I shot Enclosure in upstate New York, which looks nothing like any part of England,” the artist said in an interview about the show. “The grass is grey; it doesn’t have that verdant green. The sun is high. There’s no mist. You can’t even pretend it’s England. So after I shot it, I was like, ‘What am I going to do? This all looks like upstate.’ One of the solutions came from looking at these paintings: just change the skies. If you change the skies, you immediately have a different relationship with the land.”
Views of alternate skies summoned by different means—”edited or stuck together with CGI, kind of like collaging or a form of compositing,” Rose said—give Enclosure an uncanny look, as if it is somehow both older and more futuristic than it is. And they resonate with the visions of the ages-old paintings that inspired Rose’s thinking about the time period she took as a subject.
The paintings had been a point of interest for Rose when she was enrolled at Yale. “I actually went to the Yale Center for British Art before I knew anything about British art because of Louis Kahn,” Rose said. “I was obsessed with Kahn’s architecture, and the Yale Center for British Art is one of the most extraordinary buildings ever. I thought I was going to be an architect when I was an undergraduate. I did not think I was going to be an artist at all.”
After the seed was planted, her interest grew—enough so that she became a student guide who gave tours of the Yale Center with ideas of her own about some of the artwork on view. “I had a tour that I gave—strangely or not strangely—about changes in the picturesque and the development of landscape painting,” she said.
A few years ago, with her student years in the past, Rose found herself thinking back. For a commission in 2016, she said, “I was thinking about magic and the role of women and where we are today, and that led me back to 17th- and 18th-century agrarian England.”
Then came another commission to create an installation for the LUMA Foundation in France and the Park Avenue Armory in New York. “I was interested in this time as really foundational to our relationship with the environment today, but also to America and ideas of utopia and the beginnings of where we are,” Rose said. “I was thinking of all the snake-oil capitalism of America and where that came from—and, once again, I was back in this moment in England.” (The commission resulted in a presentation at LUMA in 2019, but, because of pandemic-related complications, a planned follow-up at the Park Avenue Armory was adapted to become the version now on view at Gladstone Gallery.)
When she first thought of the idea to exhibit some of the historic works that she had drawn upon, Rose found an eager collaborator in Courtney J. Martin, the director of the Yale Center for British Art since 2019 (before which she worked as deputy director and chief curator of Dia Art Foundation). With Martin, Rose arranged for some of her favorite Yale Center paintings to visit New York—and shed light on what she had in mind with the work she created.
Below, take a guided tour of sorts through four such works, with thoughts from Rose and Martin.
Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon (ca. 1833)
Rachel Rose: The Harvest Moon comes out of a time when industrialization is underway and the landscape has been claimed. It’s being harvested, as you can see, and used for its resources in a more efficient way than ever before. In this work, Palmer is going back to a kind of spiritual relationship with the landscape. It feels like there’s a reverence and a magic in the way that he paints, a kind of storybook illustrative quality to the stars and the moon. The moon is huge. It has this enveloping battery-like presence. The farmers are working but you also get the sense that they might also be dancing. There is a kind of mystery to their work amidst this otherworldly image of nature. There is something regressive about it, like it’s looking back to a time that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution and the Agriculture Revolution.
Courtney J. Martin: “Regressive” is the word—you’ve hit the nail on the head. There was still farmland in the 1830s, but everyone who is living in a city is well aware of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Everybody is also aware of something that is less known to us as Americans, which is the Enclosure Acts, which begin roughly around 1750. The Industrial Revolution is later because one feeds into the other. By 1830, you could have talked very easily about all these big changes that are happening, with tenant sharecropping taking place throughout the countryside, on small partializations of land where people had just been using the wilds. You could have seen this if you’d gone to the countryside. And immigration out of England, to America in particular, is happening at a mass scale. This emptying-out of once-populated rural spaces is something that people are very aware of because it led to labor shortages. There was a mass rural-to-urban move. Palmer is looking back toward something that … it’s not so much that it doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s different. There is perhaps a little bit of nostalgia. He’s laboring over something that he might be feeling the loss of at the same time.
John Constable, Hampstead Looking Towards Harrow (1821–22)
Rose: There is something similar happening in Hampstead Looking Towards Harrow. This is in the city of London—it’s in no way the countryside—and yet John Constable has blighted out everything about the city. We feel like we’re in a true rural landscape, which is completely inaccurate. The feeling again is this kind of regression. It’s not joyful; it doesn’t have the kind of spiritual celestial reverence that is in The Harvest Moon. It’s a regression, and a dampened one. The sky foggy, the trees sooty and brown—this is not an ideal landscape. I think this is also an image, in some ways, of deforestation. Part of the Enclosure Acts was a massive felling and use of the forest for new kinds of building. Another thing I find interesting is that the land is just the bottom third of the painting. Two-thirds above is the sky. Here, we see what seems to represent an attitude toward the sky that predates the Industrial Revolution, when the sky is literally the decider of the seasons, the decider of the harvest, when people in pre-clock-time were living by the sun and moon.
Martin: Constable is known as the painter of Suffolk. If you’re if you’re looking at a map of England, London is in the center and Suffolk is to the east. Suffolk is rural and known for having a lot of low-lying areas and and valleys, with pockets of places with hills. Then there are areas with a build-up of geologic accretions; some of them give off chalk, and Constable was known for painting that. But this is London, so it’s a fantasy that, at this moment [in 1821], he is able to stand at the top of Hampstead Heath and look north toward Harrow and see that much of an expanse.
Rachel, you’re onto something in that so much of this is not landscape because there wouldn’t have been that much landscape to see. He’s having to weigh his fantasy of wanting to see this expanse with the reality that, to look that far inside of London going north, you wouldn’t just see the countryside, even back then. Fancy country houses had been developed at this point. Hampstead Heath had already been laid out with large-scale estates. It is no longer this rural place that he’s envisioning, so he has to make an accommodation for it by making so much of this painting about the sky. At the same time, this is from the same year that he starts his cloud studies, which are a whole series of studies of the formations of clouds, the way they come together and fall apart.
Rose: He’s made fog from the city pastoral, somehow.
Martin: It’s almost as if he’s trying to turn that slice of the city into the countryside where he’s really from. It doesn’t look that different than the kinds of paintings that would have been about Suffolk around the same period of time.
Joseph Wright of Derby, Dovedale (1786)
Rose: This again feels like a fantasy to me. The light coming in in the morning, the perfect two swans, the fisher grabbing his fish with his assistant. It feels like an idyllic British countryside, and there’s a real emphasis on light in the forest. That’s initially what drew me to Joseph Wright of Derby. His paintings are so essential: it’s light, it’s trees, it’s light, it’s trees—repetition! There’s almost a kind of minimalism in his materiality. This is idyllic, but it’s foreboding. There’s a darkness inside the forest, black that punctures the morning light. It’s definitely a vision of a forest untouched, unfelled, undestroyed, unburned, uninhabited. One of the things I was interested in about this time period was what I imagined as people’s relationship to the forest in terms of magic and animism—the idea that there were magical things in the forest, that relationships between wind and a tree and an animal were all connected, that forests were alive. That translated to a kind of spirituality for people. There’s a mystery that’s being presented by the lushness of the forest.
Martin: Joseph Wright of Derby goes on his “Grand Tour” [of historical sites and artwork in Italy] a little bit later [than others of his cohort], partially because he’d been a working artist for so much of his life. By the time he goes in 1773, he’s going with his wife, a number of children, plus a few other artists with him—so he has an entourage. Upon his return, he’s able to establish himself a bit better than he previously had. He’s no longer living in Derby, which was an industrial seat, with the kinds of patrons that he collaborated with coming out of industry in Birmingham. He uses that to take him to Italy, but he doesn’t return to Derby— he goes to Bath. He submitted to the Royal Academy every year and was trying hard to be seen as very serious and not just someone who is caught in a rut.
Dovedale is actually close to Derby, so the lushness is, I think, him trying to make Dovedale look like something that comes out of the types of paintings he would have seen on the Grand Tour—but not for the same reasons that somebody like Constable is doing it. Constable is trying to undo the effects of the Industrial Revolution, whereas I think Joseph Wright of Derby is trying to prove that an English painter can make the kind of landscapes that the Italians and French are so capable of at this moment.
Joseph Wright of Derby, Matlock Tor by Moonlight, 1777–80
Rose: This other painting by Joseph Wright of Derby has a totally different lightscape. I wonder if there’s anything to this form of romanticism, the link between the heart and light. I think maybe a kind of projection of the self into the landscape is happening, which is cool because it’s a moment when people are being severed from the landscape. As Courtney said, everyone’s becoming urban. They’re literally leaving their entire country to come to America—you can’t have a sharper severance than that. And yet it’s also this time when there’s a suturing or replacing of emotion in the landscape. I think there’s something important to that for us now—how we extend or don’t extend our own senses of self into the landscapes around us. In a way it feels like romanticism is also a kind of mourning. This kind of regressive or nostalgic or elated ecstatic atmosphere is connected to the severance.
Martin: You’re so right. So much of what [artists at the time] are experiencing is obviously very personal, and the landscape becomes a kind of replacement for that—for what that they cannot say. There’s no space for conversation, but emotion can happen in the work in a way that it cannot, perhaps, in real time. We speak so much now about people’s ability to engage or reach a deeper emotional plane; we have public conversations about that. It’s not that people [during this time] weren’t allowed to do that, but artists could do it under the cover of aesthetics. It’s important for us to be able to recognize that, because artists can place all that into work without ever having to state it.