“Eye on the Environment,” at the Sherry French Gallery in New York City this spring, explored the philosophical underpinnings of the landscape genre. The motto for the exhibition was taken from a Kenyan proverb: “Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was lent to you by your children.” In the nineteenth century, Romantic writers and visual artists confronted a number of contemporary issues, including the Industrial Revolution’s threats to the environment and population shifts that separated a large portion of the citizenry from rural life. Their celebration of nature was a subtle response that emphasized the resilience as well as the fragility of the living world. The traditionalist landscapists at the Sherry French show take a similar approach, balancing today’s concerns about the ecosystem with formal imperatives of harmonious composition. Peter Polites looks at the Tybee Island marshes in a seasonal quartet of images, all dated 2007. The brackish coastal waters east of Savannah serve an important ecological function, as purifiers and anything-but-stagnant sources of life. From simple elements—spartina grass, sky, mirrored pools and mud banks—Polites creates deceptively serene images that use the flatness of the horizon as a symbol of equilibrium. Tybee Road Marsh: Spring Tide, in shades of brown and yellow-green, uses texture to suggest wind moving through grass. In Tybee Road Marsh: Summer Squall Front, clouds pile up overhead as sharp sunlight turns the grass bright green. Tybee Road Marsh: Fall Breezes contrasts a swath of golden grass with the milkiness of the overcast sky. In Tybee Road Marsh: Winter Sky Break, the grass is a deep, velvety brown, while sky and water dissolve into a mass of silvery light. Together, the set demonstrates the value of attentive observation.
Other painters directly confront the dangers of human intervention in the natural world. Arthur Chartow’s Geometry of Zug (2006) is a bird’s-eye view of a complex of tanks and silos, a sinister toy village with a science fiction vibe, albeit under a Romantic sky of rollicking clouds. Chartow’s Great Lakes Steel II (2004) regards the boxy forms of deserted industrial sheds from a lower vantage point, across foreground railroad tracks and encroaching grass. Despite the specter of lingering pollution in these “brown fields,” natural beauty reasserts itself in the raking light that gilds blank walls and rough vegetation. A number of the gallery’s familiar artists—Janice Anthony, John Morrell, Carolyn Edlund—present work that does not address the theme in particularly direct ways, although the context may prompt the viewer to think about the landscape genre itself from a new perspective. Edlund’s Top of Haines Falls, Dry Season (2004) looks like a conventional hilly picturesque, but the curiously fleshy eroded stone of the exposed keynote notch suggests undercurrents of surrealism.
Most of the paintings in the exhibition are in oil, but Randy Eckard’s watercolors stand out. No particular philosophical agenda seems to be at work, but the compositions are solid, and the special luminosity of the medium adds to the conversation about the light of nature as a primarily inspiration. September’s Gift (2007) is a simple scene: an expanse of grass, a ribbon of water and a green far shore. Drama arises from the contrast of deep shadow and vibrant sunlight. In Meeting Along the Edge (2008), two abandoned farm buildings and skeletal cart wheels rise from a field of brown-gold grass, suggesting the very American loneliness that forms a thread of art history running from Edward Hopper to Andrew Wyeth. The best of Eckard’s images here is Suddenly Blue (2007), a study of white buildings in snow under a brilliant sky. The geometry of the architecture is softened by the curve of drifts and the shadow of spidery tree branches distended across a snow bank. Sherry French Gallery, 601 West 26th Street, 13th Floor, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 647-8867. On the web at www.sherryfrenchgallery.com