Lee Boroson’s work begins with the idea of nature, which he mediates between the landscape as culture as opposed to notions of the outdoors as “wild” or “untamed.” To achieve this, he begins with the notion of material surrogacy, considering how one material can become a stand-in for a natural event, and how that transformation can then be used to redefine the landscape. Through the transformation of materials like plastic, glass and fabric, Boroson emulates phenomenological experiences based on the most elemental forces in nature – from air, fog, and smoke, to fire and the cosmos.  His installations are as much about creating an artificial environment as they are about building upon both historic and contemporary ideas, which challenge perceptions of landscape and the relationship between nature and the manufactured.

Recalling 19th-cetury Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole’s practice of painting from the landscape and re-processing the images later, Boroson explains, “I see a connection between this kind of freedom to take from nature and alter it and the way that architecture filters and delivers nature, functioning like a valve to let in a little bit at a time.” Cole and his contemporaries like Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt would sketch the landscape in the field and then compile the most ideal versions of these drawings into paintings of impossibly perfect nature. Boroson uses this manipulation of perception as well as the cultural connotations imbued in the land as a launching point for his own work, expanding it to the third dimension to create a physically immersive experience.

For Plastic Fantastic Boroson addresses the utopian ideas held by past generations about the shiny and new as symbols of the future. At once recalling the famous line in the 1967 film The Graduate: “There’s a great future in plastics,” Boroson’s title also alludes to the fact that in the present, plastic is actually a highly contested material, overflowing our landfills and clogging our oceans. By using recycled and reusable plastic as material for his installations, Boroson’s Plastic Fantastic becomes a sly nod to the material’s seductivity and its effect on the world around us.

While these artificial materials emulate the ineffability of the landscape, Boroson is also pointing to the fact that much of what we know as nature is in fact highly engineered by humans. Of this William Cronon writes: “Once we believe we know what nature ought to look like…we can remake it so completely that we become altogether indifferent or even hostile towards its prior condition. Taken far enough, the result can be a landscape in which nature and artifice, despite their apparent symbolic opposition, become indistinguishable because they finally merge into one another.”[1] In Plastic Fantastic, Boroson’s engineered nature, presented here in four parts, vies for real experience yet is anything but natural. The four connected elements of Plastic Fantastic are: The Fog, The Falls, The Crypt and The Lava Field.

The architecture of MASS MoCA is ever present, from its brick walls to bays of windows lining the spaces. In The Fog, Boroson wipes away these iconic structural landmarks to leave behind a sense of negative space, where the architecture, while still visible, shifts in and out of focus. Multi-layered and intricate, The Fog consists of sheer fabric draperies, and transparent and translucent forms made of sheet plastic arranged to create passageways. Comparable to moving through shifting fog, viewers will stumble upon the occasional clear view through the haze and then lose it to obscuring layers of vinyl, partially opaque yet still penetrated by light, which consistently alter one’s perception and sense of scale of the space.

After navigating The Fog, viewers will enter The Falls, a subtle, referential ode to the tourist’s experience of visiting Niagara Falls. However, what really fascinates Boroson is the highly engineered and controlled nature of the site. Despite being help up as a sublime example of nature’s grandeur, Niagara Falls is actually a highly engineered site. Starting in the early 1800’s Niagara Falls has been reshaped and controlled to harness the Falls for both hydroelectric power and tourism – providing one quarter of all the power to New York state and Ontario and “natural” spectacle to more than 22 million visitors a year. In addition to the controlled part of Niagara Falls, Boroson is also interested in the late 1860s Free Niagara Movement, which sought to reverse the industrial development of the Falls and return it to its natural glory…a task clearly not achieved. This sense of failure in re-naturalizing nature is evident in Boroson’s take on Niagara Falls. Complete with an overwhelming white noise much like that of the actual site, Boroson’s The Falls, is a floor-to-ceiling sculpture containing a constantly spouting stream of reflective and translucent objects (polypropylene spheres normally used to prevent the evaporation of reservoirs and other large bodies of water). The machine itself is visible – ductwork, motors and wooden structures creating a Rube Goldberg-esque interpretation of the most un-natural waterfall, complete with theatrical National Park style railings and decking, so visitors can get up-close to the view.

After The Falls, visitors enter the two mezzanine galleries, which present the earth and fire components of the exhibition. The Crypt comprises an array of inflatable fabric forms to evoke the architecture of the underworld, providing room for contemplation in a dark, primordial chamber. Initially inspired by columns of smoke pouring out of burning oil wells and imagery of volcanic eruptions, Boroson also sees a direct correlation with the gothic architectural elements of crypt spaces and the elaborate foundations of cathedrals. This subterranean architecture reflects the landscapes of caves, the earth’s own architecture, evolved at a glacial pace. Directly above, on the second level of the mezzanine, The Lava Field is a “field” of hand-blown glass shapes containing lava-like fluids that recall the iconic imagery of “lava lamps” yet not lit from below. The objects here are presented on a series of low interlocking pedestals, which look as if they have been cut from the earth.

With Plastic Fantastic, Boroson’s immersive landscape simulations engulf viewers with representations of nature’s most powerful forces, while also allowing them to confront the human desire to manage its environment, to step outside, suspend disbelief, and enter a scene where the abstract becomes real.

Lee Boroson lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Recent exhibitions include Lunar Bower at the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, and States of Matter at the Esther Massey Gallery, The College of St. Rose, Albany, NY. Solo exhibitions include: The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY; Artspace, New Haven, CT; Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo, NY; Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE, and the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, NY. Boroson has received numerous awards, including grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and professional development grants from the Rhode Island School of Design. He received an MFA from Indiana University and a BFA from the State University of New York, New Paltz, and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Boroson currently teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI.

[1] William Cronon, “Introduction: In Search of Nature” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company,) p. 40.