Notes On Grotesque Landscape

There is an allure to heaps of things, and a difficulty in drawing them. Junkyards, auto surplus yards; construction sites; sacri monti and Splash Mountain. Most often I find this allure in long daily walks through urban neighborhoods, where decorations and successive layers of plantings grow to frame doorways. These walks suggest to me a problem of landscape aesthetics. What gets experienced in snatches as picturesque, as rough and pleasing, becomes something entirely different when taken in long draughts. Such a landscape lacks hierarchy, and lacks proper parallel stages and wings, being only a confusion of elements. If the American residential landscape is supposed to work as a common estate, as the city ages this landscape has become visibly subdivided, as with an imprudent king who has divided his kingdom equally among his children. It flips between channels.

I recognize the character of my walks in Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s study of the grotesque, in what he calls a quality of “corrupted or shuffled familiarity.” This grotesque landscape refuses to settle or turn into soil. It is a heap.

You would have seen the same thing if you had fallen through a hole while poking around the weeds that rise across from Rome’s Caelian Hill. You would have landed in heaps of rubble that didn’t quite fill a subterranean building; and therein, upon the walls, drawings of further bric-a-brac, of stray pieces of received mythology, bud sports, assortments. Maidens growing from acanthus sprigs, shocked faces, dropped fish; among this, little blue landscapes fading in from nothing, or hanging framed in the midst of nothing, little blue landscapes where shepherds wander blankly in front of battered nymphaea. All this worked as crawling borders around stark expanses of single color. Why don’t these landscapes, the landscapes of Nero’s buried Golden House, count to Kenneth Clark as he seeks to chart a general history of landscape? They are, he says, “backgrounds” and “digressions;” they start at the margins and not at the center.

This space formed an ingrown hair curling below the skin of the earth – soon enough cut out and freed. 

If people find themselves with a garden plot and the will to maintain it, without having been endowed with an inheritance, they will lay by possessions as they come by them, marking around the square of the space they have: wheels, figurines, cutouts, little houses. A whirligig, an orb, and a bathtub virgin, which is nothing more than a great grotto progressively shaved down. Through these magical means, they trap bare space inside. Such grotesque is noise hedged to contain a void. It is a various skin over the homogeneous.

Here’s Harpham again: “Grotesque is a word for that dynamic state of low-ascending and high-descending.” The grotesque is one crossroads of classes and cultures, as they pass along and change. These zones of descent and ascent through social classes, trajectories crossing in an ever-narrowing middle, are manifested as much in a superabundance of political paraphernalia as in a tangle of birdhouses and windchimes.

The grotesque, maybe, is a reversal of the picturesque along an axis perpendicular to that which opposes the sublime and the beautiful. This category screens, instead of revealing; it makes depth flat; it is not respectable; it is miscellaneous. Nothing seizes you all at once. But everything is faced; that is, its elements have orientation, which need not match the overall trend of the overarching form. You walk by, and you are thumbing through an old notebook. Every project is half-undertaken, in transition between one state and another. Tremendous care sits along the forgotten, the voided. Each piece is separate and sensible, but has been seized upon and brought to the wrong place. It is representational; it refers to what is outside it. In that sense, it is the presence of the untimely, the unearthing of what shouldn’t be there.

Everything is visibly settling in the grotesque landscape. When habitual conditions made by people lapse suddenly into cross-connections – when a truck overturns on a highway and spills its cargo onto the road – the grotesque landscape results. Nothing is where it came from.

Grotesque landscapes at once call out for explanation and seem to promise that no explanation will be forthcoming. The common condition of the landscape under archaeological examination is grotesque. Imagine an excavated construction site surrounded by signs of its future character – in this sense, a construction site is an exploding and reversal of an archaeological site. Like the Golden House, the grotesque landscape unfolds from an overaccumulation of wealth. It unfolds and unfolds; the end is nowhere in sight. It is the sum of its parts.

(October 2017)