Being the Land, Owning the Self: Timeless Vision: Earth, Sea, and Sky in the Galleries at CSU
The eight artists at the exhibit Timeless Vision: Earth, Sea and Sky are modern proponents of an American tradition, responding to the natural world — to the night, to the sky, to the eternities found at Earth’s wild margins — with subtle, contemporary spirituality. Much of the work at Timeless Vision: Earth, Sea, and Sky at CSU reads (at least at first) as straight-ahead landscape painting, yet even at their most journalistic the images selected for this exhibit are far from simple pictures; the information they convey is as much concerned with conditions of knowing and being, as with the mere facts of a scene. Not merely observational, these works are better understood as ongoing essays about geology and the physics of sunsets, and about the way an artist uses her own stardust to recreate the real. Shot through with occult discovery, they make the point that Earth’s wonders persist all around our short lives, proving that landscape depiction can still bring to mind the glorious, theologically charged wilderness beloved of Thoreau and Emerson, Whitman and Melville; they revisit the haunted American night, which still shudders in the prose and poems of Hawthorne and Poe, or in paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock.
Timeless Vision is the inaugural curatorial project of CSU’s new Assistant Gallery Director, Kendall Christian. Following three decades of thought-provoking exhibits and programming brought to CSU by outgoing director Robert Thurmer, Christian is off to a galloping start. Three of the artists included in the current show are known to national and international audiences, and the others are Ohio natives who have exhibited very widely and more than hold their own in such company.
John A. Sargent III for instance has a home in South Euclid, Ohio, but his mind and soul roam the infinite. Long known as an accomplished portraitist, he also regularly approaches ambitious philosophical projects while continuing to use paint on canvas. He describes his subjects in the selection of works at CSU as “familiar yet unknowable,” and like many of his depictions over the past several decades, they show trees, or vast tracts of ocean, and nearly always the sky, illumined or shot through with permutations of sunlight and starlight: “Broken Dreams” is a four foot tall work dominated by an unusual palette of tropical aquamarine and lavender. High above the watery horizon a section of rainbow hovers in the sky, like a broken bow. Titles like “Broken Dreams” express a tension between subjective issues and the gorgeous, vast indifference of the universe. “Waiting for No One” shows a section of night, divided nearly in half by a mysterious horizontal beam of light. “Boom” is a painting of dark pines against a dramatic, moonlit sky. But like a number of Sargent’s recent surfaces, this one is spattered, spangled with a unifying scrim of white paint droplets. Poised between an up-close consciousness of painterly incident, and the great spangling of eternity, “Boom” superimposes two types of received visual information, defining creative space as the night walk between sight and touch.
Visions of twilight landscape are found in the works of several other artists here. A.D. Peters in particular is a standout, especially his Blakelock-like moonlit scenes, generated more than rendered by extraordinary choices of materials and artistic process. He employs rust as a primary material, and qualities of patina gestated by submersion in a lake on the Peters’ Ohio farm. In “Oberon’s Moon” a full moon glows yellow against a sepia sky, above the dark foliage patchwork of trees that rise from an umber field. Described in its label text as a combination of oil paint and polished patina on steel, the four foot square image doesn’t quite seem like a painting at all. Peters’ oxidation technique reads both as accident and design, gesture and metallurgy, art and science. Another medium here, perhaps, is prose, or poetry, since the title guides the eye inward away from the rolled steel plate of modern industry, toward Shakespeare’s midsummer dream.
Druidic, shamanic three-dimensional sculptures made by Annie Peters are another dimension of the same crepuscular realm, constructed from sticks and sweetgum pods, vines, leaves, paper, sinew and grass. “Shrine” and “Meanderings” each stand more than six feet tall. Peters describes herself as a myth maker, and encourages audiences to find their own narratives in the angles and twists of her constructions. Using materials found in the landscape on the Peters rural property, the artist intends her works to be in some sense epitomes of the land, sketches of spirit rising from the fields and woodlands. “Shrine” is made up of three rough poles – sticks, as Peters says – joined at the top, to form a tripod-like armature. At the top a crackling spatter of roots fleers up and out, while midway around the poles a kirtle of twisted wild grape vine circles, like a flickering circular dance.
Valence Davillier, a painter who is also Director of Exhibits at the Great Lakes Science Center, describes his own work eloquently in the show’s catalog. He might also be summing up the overall mindset of the entire group when he writes, “The creative act…reveals deeper realities and profound connections between the conscious world of reason and the supernatural one. By working through and with materials…the creative act defines the work and illuminates the deep mystery in every landscape and our perceived reality.” Davillier’s own paintings, many showing hills and mountains, rivers and distant bluffs, depict landscapes found far west of the Mississippi. Clouds curl above patches of blue, or hang heavily in the sky, like the ghosts of dinosaurs, and shadow a great tent of pale ocher cliffs. These cliffs rise toward the top of the canvas, dotted with mesquite at the far side of a tangled foreground crowd of sage brush, tipped with sunlight.
Albuquerque-based painter Alan Paine Radebaugh also recreates scenes of the far West of the United States, with its high deserts and eroded, naked geology, and its critical, often fragile ecosystems. “Each magical place,” he writes, “is awash in millions of years of natural history.” His oil on canvas depictions seem as straightforward as any observational works, yet they are actually composite scenes. Radebaugh’s assembled views are distillations of much driving and reading, photographing and pondering. “GSL 12,” for instance, is mainly a version of the north shore of Great Slave Lake, far north in Alberta, Canada. It seems to faithfully present the stubbly margins of a glacial lake. A little snow can be seen hanging on in late spring, maybe, on a low hill sparsely wooded in scrub pine. The pale blue sky with a wash of high cloud cover reflects blue gray in the muddy browns of the water. But Radebaugh observes, “Paintings from this series…meld images from one place with those from another to create an overall impression of the Plains. The paintings reflect my impression of the territory rather than document a particular site.”
Michael Greenwald is a Cleveland painter known for his moody, mostly imaginary landscapes, which bring to mind the somber nocturnes of Albert Pinkham Ryder. Unlike Ryder, who was fond of allegorical and literary figures, Greenwald’s painted world is deliberately free from the human form – not merely empty, but emptied. Greenwald clears a space for the mind, offering visions of earth such as were last seen (but never seen) on the first days of Creation. A work like “Red Sky at Night, Sailors’ Delight, Red Sky at Morning, Sailors Take Warning” is a pure psychological space, as much like a Rothko as a Ryder, but emptied also of history. It is a new beginning.
Thomas Pickarski is a photographer based in Michigan whose mid-size inkjet prints similarly attempt to search out the bare origins of a mythic setting, looking for hints of a creative spirit that shelters at the edges of the world. His photographs of a few barren trees in a high altitude Wyoming winter, or half-revealing a barely visible late evening scene in a New Mexico desert, or a winding stream, snaking toward a conical peak in Iceland, are part of Pickarski’s explorations of, as he writes, “the most remote corners of the world. These natural settings invoke the beauty and drama of fairy tales.”
New York based Richard Vaux creates carbon and oil on matboard sky-scapes which at first glance can be mistaken for photographs. They capture the drama of natural, large-scale processes, recreating a kind of weather of the page, using powdered carbon and an airbrush. Such parallelism is, as we come to understand in a careful viewing of this exhibit (and much art elsewhere), an important fact in the choices that some artists make, and can restore to contemporary art an ancient, powerful view of the world and man’s capabilities. Each of the works at “Timeless Visions” offers its own understanding of the proposition that artistic process is a matter of identification, and is found at the root of human spiritual growth as well as long-term survival. The artist becomes her materials, tracking the elusive, growing self through myriad transformations.