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The "L" Word 

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Landscape is perhaps the most popular, and most abused, genre of representational painting today. While the other major genres of the past have seemingly outlived their usefulness—portraiture has been largely usurped by photography; still life seems beside the point; the complex, multi-figure narrative scenes known as “history painting” seem overblown and irrelevant to contemporary experience—landscape stands as our sole living contact with the illusionistic tradition.

What continues to make landscape so compelling? Why is it such a powerful mode of painting, appealing especially to those who otherwise know little or nothing about art? Maybe because it represents what is, at base, an inescapably universal experience: the individual standing in (and surrounded by) a sweeping view of the world out-of-doors, which recedes to distant horizon line.

Perhaps it’s something in the essential need for a relationship with, and within, nature. The intersection of sky, earth, and river seems to call upon a primordial level of the understanding, making it quite logical that the ancients dreamt up gods to personify these elemental forces of nature. A painting that successfully pushes these buttons in the viewer instantly captures your attention, calling forth an almost involuntary reaction. It sneaks into your subconscious, whisking you away even before you realize the abduction is happening. It’s very hard to resist this siren call, and opens the genre to much abuse in the hands of artists who don’t mind taking advantage of cheap, sentimental effect. It’s this sort of painting that makes landscape an almost forbidden pleasure at times—the “L” word of the art world.

There are, of course, different ways to approach this theme—tame it through picturesque effects that merely hint at nature’s vastness while leaving the viewer in full command of the scene, or release its overwhelming power full force as the sublime.

Here in the Hudson Valley, the whole idea of landscape is thoroughly permeated with the legacy of Thomas Cole’s Hudson River School, and all those providential renditions of the Catskills and the river, bathed in golden, god-like sunlight by artists like Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand, Sanford Gifford, Martin Johnson Heade, and many others. The primary achievement of this group was to successfully raise the stakes for landscape, often executing works on such an enormous scale and investing them with an overwhelming feeling of the sublime that made landscape—and, one should note, specifically the American landscape—a competitor for the rhetorical grandeur of history painting.

Partly because of the success of this 19th-century movement, and in some sense despite it, landscape painting is the most commercially viable art being made and sold in our area today. I’ve often commented that if I wanted this column to focus on negative criticism, I could probably just crank out a screed against a different saccharine, sentimental landscape exhibition and/or painter each month, and never run out of material. But perhaps the quantity of badly done landscape is merely a measure of the difficulty of doing it successfully—using its power, but resisting the impulse to manipulate the viewer with hokey artifice. (You might consider here the enormous, kitschy success of Thomas Kinkade as a negative example.)

Two shows open through the end of this month demonstrate what I think are successful engagements with the genre, with two diverse approaches to landscape painting, in which each artist finds a way to finesse the aesthetic mine field lying hidden just beneath the verdant fields and rolling hills that they depict.
One of the best known Hudson Valley regional artists is Jane Bloodgood-Abrams, whose current exhibition, at Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Poughkeepsie, focuses on a series of very dramatic, expressive “skyscapes”—that is, landscapes with low horizon lines that open up to the dramatic play of light and dark as the sun breaks through banks of lifting storm clouds, through mist, and so on.

While she draws her initial inspiration from direct experience of the Hudson Valley, observing fleeting moments of light and atmosphere in which she feels a heightened sense of emotion or spirituality, the works themselves are products of the studio—working on the paintings provides a way for her to absorb and distill the experience through her psyche, a process ultimately open to the viewer in the finished work. “I romanticize the landscape, and I’m not ashamed to say it,” she declares. She expresses in her subjects her “personal ideas of spirit and nature, so [the paintings] are not so literal. I’m using the landscape to convey a feeling or idea, bringing people back to a grounded place in nature.”

Building up the image in thin, careful glazes of paint, she begins with an abstract sense of the overall composition in the beginning stages, adding more and more detail while pulling out the particular subtleties of color and light, carefully managing their relationships as she walks the emotional tightrope between “just enough” and “too much.” Of course, in the end, it’s still a matter of individual taste, and undoubtedly some will find that she’s crossed the line in these baroquely emotive works. But for me the most fascinating aspect of the show is simply watching the painter skillfully dance on the edge of that abyss.

A decidedly less Romantic but equally interesting take on the landscape tradition can be found in Colin Barclay’s paintings, now on view at the Van Brunt Gallery in Beacon. Barclay pushes the genre in a more overtly modernist direction. Starting with a color slide as his point of reference, he slowly strips the scene down to a series of moody, abstract swaths of light, the particularity of the landscape evaporating in an atmospheric, almost metaphysical haze. (As his dealer, Carl Van Brunt, puts it, “It’s like the 19th century meets Mark Rothko.”)

Barclay has, in fact, spent quite a bit of time studying the work of the Hudson River School artists, in particular Sanford Gifford and the Luminists, a group who emphasized the beautiful, golden glow of the sun as it hung low in the sky. He focuses, as these artists did, on the essential qualities of light and mood, but he is no longer constrained by the need to provide fine detail for the work to seem “finished,” as was the case a century ago.

Progressively stripping away all reportorial detail from his photographic reference image, Barclay responds to the emotional qualities of the image as it emerges through his thin glazes of paint, arriving at an almost archetypal expression of our visual relationship to the panorama. Light vs. dark, near vs. far, we experience a synthetic summary of our relationship to the land, and to pure painting itself as well.

It’s interesting to note that neither Bloodgood-Abrams nor Barclay offers us truly contemporary landscapes—that is, real vistas of the Hudson Valley as it is strewn with houses and roads. (“I’m not a big fan of ironic commentary,” says Barclay in defense of this choice.) Similarly, the Hudson River School artists resolutely turned their backs on most signs of human intervention in the environment as well, editing out all of the canals, factories, and towns sprouting up along the Hudson right beneath their noses. It’s a devilish decision to make. Without the presence of Man in the (represented) landscape, we can renew our awe and humility in the face of all that seems so much larger than we are; with it included, we lose that overarching sense that drives the desire to resist the ever-growing encroachments of economic development and real estate speculation, literally paving the way to its irretrievable loss.

I doubt there will be any successful resolution of this intractable paradox anytime soon, at least not through art alone. In the meantime, perhaps we can chart a middle path by buying or enjoying these paintings—and then sending a check to Clearwater.

atmospheres; paintings by Jane Bloodgood-Abrams, on view through May 30. Albert Shahinian Fine Art, 198 Main Street, Poughkeepsie. (845) 454-0522.

colin barclay; paintings on view through May 30 at Van Brunt Gallery, 460 Main Street, Beacon. (845) 838-2955.

Speaking of Landscapes

  • Beth E. Wilson on landscape painting.


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