Landscapes, East and West
Landscape is the genre that most easily bridges the divide between representation and abstraction: skies and swaths of land can be translated into fields of color. Clouds, water, snow and sunsets have a vitality not necessarily tied to form, and their fluidity appeals to painters who favor free brushwork. But landscapes can also provide ways to connect intimately with specific places, and certain regions attract groups of painters and help define their style. The Barbizon painters and the Hudson River School are important historical examples. This tradition continues today. Sherry French Gallery in New York City presented its fifteenth annual “Mainely Maine” exhibition in September. The rugged seacoasts and forests of Maine have been a mainstay of American artists since Winslow Homer and the Luminists. Among the artists in this show were Janice Anthony, Eliza Auth, Cora Ogden, Dean Thomas and Carolyn Edlund. Auth has an affinity for desolate places. Describing her scouting mission for the scenes she paints in her studio, she writes: “I’m thinking about how the wind stung my face and how difficult it was to use the camera with numb fingers, how cold the light was.” Auth’s Winter Dunes and Popham Beach in Winter have stark beauty and chilly light. The horizontals of sand and sky are broken up by sinuous curves—a battered fence in Dunes, a slither of ice-blue wave carving into the shore in Popham Beach. Not all the images are of Maine. Edlund’s flamboyant Quintessential Calm (2007) depicts a rundown farm near Hyde Park, New York. The farm barely breaks the horizon, upstaged by a few impressive trees, but the sky provides the real drama, combining purple clouds, an orange sunset and bruise-blue sky. The otherworldliness of that sky, reminiscent of Frederic Church, is a feat of imagination as much as mimetic skill. Edlund pieced it together from her “amassed collection of photo references of skies—taken at all times of the day,” as well as her photos of the site itself.
The American west has different landscape configurations, as suggested by the tourist literature promise of “big sky country.” In September Meyer-Munsen Gallery in Santa Fe featured P.A. Nisbet’s “Clouds: A Celebration of the Sky,” sweeping skyscapes in the tradition of John Constable and Albert Bierstadt. Nisbet finds the permutations of clouds an endlessly fascinating spectacle, and the desert vistas of New Mexico offer remarkable viewing platforms. His love of open wilderness led him to a grant from the Nation Science Foundation’s Antarctica Artists and Writers Program; he spent several months in 1995 working out of McMurdo Station on the edge of the Ross Sea. Church, one of Nisbet’s heroes, was also drawn to the polar wilderness. Now Nisbet has his studio in the former residence of Ashcan painter John Sloan, where ten-foot-high windows flood the space with light from the north. There he completes the large-scale paintings he starts as on-site sketches made while walking the landscape. Most are horizontal in format: Storm at Ancho, with a distant veil of thunder-grey rain; Red Dawn, with feverish skies that suggest Church’s; Elysian Fields, a pure expanse of blue light and white vapor with no earth referents at all. Anvil emphasizes motion, as clouds sweep above a gently rolling ground line of hills and trees. The vertical-format Colossus uses flat ground with a perspective-establishing path to anchor a huge billowing white cloud that fills most of the image (all paintings 2007). Sherry French Gallery, Starrett-Lehigh Building, 13th floor, 601 West 26th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 647-8867. On the web at www.sherryfrenchgallery.com. Meyer-Munson Gallery, 225 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501. Telephone (505) 983-1657. On the web at www.munsongallery.com