Unnatural Nature: Post-Pop Landscapes
On ViewAcquavella Gallery
April 21 – June 10, 2022
The human appetite for landscape paintings is apparently infinite, and this show of no fewer than twenty-eight artists in its New York version (there was a second edition in Palm Beach, which like this one was curated by Todd Bradway) emulates that infinity. How easy it would be to get lost in all these painted forests!
Landscape depictions probably begin, at least by implication, with cave painting hunting scenes: after all, the prey must live in nature. And that idea of emulating elements from the non-human universe and enclosing them in a cave goes a long way toward explaining why we paint landscapes. It’s a matter of control. When the cave painters exit the cave, they stake out gardens, not only to grow food but to express their dominance over at least part of the world. By extension, parks and forests imply a gradual loosening of human intentionality, the realization that there is something about the planet that transcends human understanding and hegemony. Nevertheless, the act of painting landscape, even of untamed nature, asserts metaphorical dominance over that world beyond our reach, so that even the sublime scenes of a Romantic painter like Caspar David Friedrich can hang in the living room. Geometry renders the non-human universe comprehensible, but geometry is nothing more than a fiction, that is, art.
The artists present in the Acquavella show were born in various decades of the twentieth century: the earliest in the twenties, the latest in the eighties, with at least ten from the seventies. These are all established artists, and each interprets the rather rigid rules governing landscape art in their own way. We expect to find vanishing points, meandering paths leading to them, repoussoirs guiding our eyes into the paintings’ depth. We expect to find light arranged vertically, brightest at the top, darkest at the bottom. Many of the artists here respect those criteria; many do not.
The two elder artists here, Alex Katz (b. 1927) and Lois Dodd (b. 1927), dramatize the fraught relationship any artist has with inherited rules. Katz’s Twilight (2006) is a large (72 by 96) oil on linen. The upper reaches of the canvas are, indeed, light, the lower dark, but both are blue, as if the twilight, l’heure bleue, were really blue. The composition is devoid of perspective, a flat surface that mystifies and fascinates. Dodd’s smaller (30 by 48) oil on linen both respects and disrespects tradition. Water Gap, Last Snow Fall, March 2003 (2003) uses a guiding shadow to lead our eye across the snow, through the trees, and into infinity. It would be a very traditional painting except for the pinkish mountain on the right that distorts geometric precision. The painting’s delight derives, precisely, from that distortion.
Adrian Berg (1929–2011) also follows tradition in his Beachy Head, 1st August (1996). The August sky is bright blue, the foliage luxuriant, phosphorescent. Missing, of course, is Beachy Head, a chalk headland in East Sussex long a favorite of British painters. Nicole Wittenberg (b. 1979) is also specific in her title, Glen Cove 2 (2021), but this is a Long Island of the mind, with the reflected moon guiding us to the vanishing point. Her trees have their own light source independent of the moon and gloriously eschew landscape’s hierarchy of light. Ann Craven (b. 1967), by contrast, is splendidly orthodox in her Moon (Glowing Trees, Pink Rippling Water, Cushing) (2021). Her trees are repoussoirs in the old style, her bright moon in a black sky illuminates the surface of the water. Maine never looked so eerily glorious.
Lisa Sanditz (b. 1973) incorporates human circumstance into her complex Vax Clinic 2 Day/ Dead Mall (2022). Skeletal cars, the place to get your Covid vaccination: you’d think you’re back in the real world. Not for a second. Sanditz’s layered oil on canvas restrains perspective and creates strata: cars on the bottom, the clinic above, an impossible pink-spotted ridge, and a white sky. Perhaps a paysage moralisé commentary on the human corruption of nature, but in gentle, playful terms. For true darkness, we turn to Matthew Wong (1984-2019). His Forest Light (Dedicated to Cézanne) (2019) brings us face-to-face with Blake’s “forest of the night.” The incandescent trees in this small (16 by 12.5) acrylic on paper depict a nature from which there is no escape, a prison-house nature.
Let’s ascribe a happy ending to this splendid show with Hill Farm Road (2020), another small, 11 by 14, acrylic on paper by Maureen Gallace (b. 1960) This is the landscape of heart’s desire: the winding road running off into infinity, the white house, a happy union of rectangle and triangle: landscape painting as utopia. If only we could live there forever.