Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Return of the Vanishing Spectacular Landscape

Last month, one of the world's most important exhibitions for contemporary art commissioned a stunning installation that brought a new immediacy to the questions surrounding the nature and function of the landscape genre in the 21st century.

The work, titled Fatigues, 2012, by British artist Tacita Dean, consisted of six unframed blackboard panels containing images of mountains in Afghanistan exquisitely rendered in white chalk. The floor-to-celing panels were suspended around a two-story staircase of ornate, antiquated design. It was commissioned by the dOCUMENTA 13 exhibition and installed in a former finance building in Kassel, Germany.

Tacita Dean's Fatigues, 2012, for dOCUMENTA 13.

The title I take to refer both to the fatigues worn by soldiers in the war-torn region and to the contemporary art world's disinterest in anything that smacks of traditional Nature-glorifying picture-making in the grand Romantic manner exemplified by the outsize panoramas of the Hudson River School. When nineteenth-century landscapists Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, or Frederick Church exhibited their majestic renditions of the American wilderness, crowds lined up as if for a blockbuster movie. A small group would be let into the exhibition space, and the silk curtains would be drawn back from an enormous canvas to breathless, admiring exhalations. Fatigues was defyingly reminiscent of such dramatic presentations.

Frederick Church's Heart of the Andes as exhibited in New York City in 1864.

But Dean's work has less to do with the sublime grandeur of transcendent Nature than with the nature of landscape painting and art in general. As documented in photographs proliferating online, her panels deny the traditional function of the work of art as a window opening onto a convincing illusion. Instead of the referential (or reverential) colors of oil paint, these landscapes are drawn in black and white with ordinary schoolhouse chalk. (Though just how ordinary white chalk is anymore in these days of digital whiteboards and video projectors is questionable in itself, I suppose).

The stark whiteness of floating peaks and glaciers and amorphous forms and textures suggesting ice and stone project in unnatural contrast to the ghostly deeps of the surrounding space. Some of the panels contain only traces of line, suggesting the movement of rivers, snow, and the interaction of these elements with sunlight. 

I'd be willing to bet that viewing the work in its intended setting was thrilling. Even in the National Gallery, where there's a whole room devoted to Cole's "Stages of Life" series, you don't get to walk up and down between enormous landscapes as if inside a movie.

In fact, Dean's installation began as a Middle-Eastern film project that failed when she returned from Kabul to find her footage spoiled by technical flaws. Best known as a photographer and filmmaker, Dean began drawing in chalk after painting out the backgrounds of photographs, at first using white gouache, and later using black chalkboard paint.

Dean's use of Afghanistan as her subject adds another ripple to the experience. Like the audience for landscape in the nineteenth century, we are "touring" a natural phenomenon charged with meaning. But these are disembodied images, oddly adrift, otherworldly ghosts of a topography that would be beautiful, even sublime, were it permissible or possible to see it free of the inescapable psychological-historical-political  context in which it's framed.

The use of chalk on blackboard panels, an inherently unstable medium (chalkboards are meant to be erased), suggests to me something of nostalgia, the fragility of experience and immateriality of place, as well as the instability and precariousness of our threatened - and actually vanishing - natural world. The incongruous hand-railings with their Victorian metalwork hint at humanity's at times equally frail structures (not excluding the late nineteenth century's short-lived surge of spiritual naturalism).

Paradoxically, even though the absence of colors other than black and white could be intended to undermine landscape's habit of referring to an actual world "out there," here the white chalk is actually quite appropriate for representing the snowy terrain of the subject matter. At every turn, this work contradicts our assumptions, opening in at least two directions: it speaks both to the emotions and to the intellect, and in doing so, raises anew the "question" of landscape painting in the 21st century.

Dean explicitly disrupts landscape painting's referentiality with scrawled handwriting.

That is to say, despite the "meta" aspects of this work, the images carry resonance in themselves, beyond their ostensible purpose as pointers toward a conceptual formulation. And yet, because of the installation's stacked, "surround-sound" arrangement, one views the images from an unsettling point that suggests both distance and proximity. Fatigues works as splendid draughtsmanship, evocative referentiality, political statement, and postmodern conceptualism all at the same time. 

I find the whole thing fascinating for its boldness and depth of thought, its strangeness and its scale, and above all for its unlikely re-invigoration of the experience of landscape in the grand manner.

There's a page with clear, higher-res images of the entire installation right here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Wave

Crashing waves by Winslow Homer, c. 1900
Though he was a master at depicting the stormy Maine coast, Winslow Homer was far from the first to seize upon crashing ocean waves as a subject for painting. 

Most conspicuous among his forbears in the "Crash! Boom! Bang!" genre is Gustave Courbet, the French painter credited with leading the Realist movement in mid-19th-century France. 

Waves by Gustave Courbet, c. 1870

Courbet himself encountered the motif in Japanese prints, the newly widespread availability of which was hugely influential in the development of Western painting.

Gustave Courbet, The Wave, 1869

From about 1869 on, Courbet painted numerous versions of vigorously breaking waves employing a similar close-up-viewpoint, composition, and handling while painting on the Normandy coast. The following from Scotland’s National Gallery summarizes the series:

“Courbet was fascinated by the power of the sea. He spent the summer of 1869 at Etretat on the Normandy coast and painted several pictures of waves breaking on the shore. The small scale of his canvas did not inhibit his ability to convey the vast expanse of stormy sky and sea. Courbet applied paint thickly using vigorous brush and palette knife strokes which complement the forceful surge of the wave. The motif of the single wave was inspired by Japanese color prints which were widely available in Paris in the 1860s.”- National Gallery, Scotland. 

Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, colored woodblock print, 1829-1830

Many connoisseurs of painting consider Frederick Judd Waugh the American master of the motif. Waugh composed spectacular and beautiful renditions of the rocky shore.
An annoyingly awesome and beautiful seascape by Frederick Waugh

A blog over here neatly presents Waugh's advice and admonitions about painting the sea. But Waugh's paintings usually don't have the kind of dire and glowering existential overtones that Homer's do. In the latter's marines, you feel really at the mercy of larger forces.

Yet Another Incredible Seascape by Frederick Waugh.
In Waugh's you just stand back with your mouth hanging open and realize there's not much point anymore in painting lovingly realistic seascapes that celebrate the Romantic force and beauty of the rocky shore. Really, what else is left to say? 

So you move on. 

Liu Guosong, Chinese, b. 1931, High Landscape II, 20th century, Hanging scroll, ink on paper, Image: 130.81 x 75.88 cm

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Weatherbeaten - Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer, The Artist's Studio in Afternoon Fog, 1894
Winslow Homer was an illustrator who moved to Prouts Neck, Maine and became an artist. 

As of this fall, Homer's studio in Scarborough, Maine has been meticulously restored and is open to the public for guided tours.

Meanwhile, there's a once-in-a-lifetime show of Homer's late marine paintings at the Portland Museum of Art through December, 2012. Homer forever changed American painting with these existential, up-close renderings of the violently sea-battered shore near Portland, Maine.

Winslow Homer, Eastern Point, 1900

Homer's unflinching images of unsentimentalized natural forces carried landscape painting past the majestic "views" of the Hudson River Style, the aqueous mysticism of Tonalism, and the anecdotal narratives of illustration. 

One could argue that these works succeed in establishing a new degree of relevance for perceptually based landscape painting on the eve of Modernism's arrival in America. It's possible to feel in these paintings a kindred sense of grappling with impersonal forces indifferent to humanity that one finds in post-war abstraction and even some of the abstract expressionists.

The anchor image for the Portland show is a painting that's been titled "Weatherbeaten," although Homer himself gave it the title "Storm Beaten" when it left his studio.

Weatherbeaten, by Winslow Homer, 1894
It's not just the absence of figures or even the force of the crashing wave in Weatherbeaten that gives this painting its haunting power. It's how Homer bars our way in with that thick, blunt slab of boulder jammed up horizontally against the picture plane. It's also the angle of the exploding wave against the diagonally converging stones that would seem to slide ponderously from left to right, smashing into the smaller opposed stones in the righthand corner, were it not that Homer has invested them all with so much weight and inertia.

Homer's understated colors comprise a symphonic poem of cool and warmer grays, and the high degree of contrast in the values punches up the dramatic volume. Close examination of the surface finds Homer describing a surprisingly varied catalogue of different kinds of sea-spray, mist, and foam. Homer's wave crash doesn't just explode vertically; it puts the canvas in motion by showing how strongly the stormy wind is sweeping from left to right.

Weatherbeaten's dynamic tension.
The theme of the painting's underlying abstract design is tension. Visual elements pull in contradictory directions, horizontally from left to right and vertically from down to up. Lines slide, slam, lift, jolt and collide, converging on a center neither rock nor water but over-spilling whiteness (foam) from which two tiny dark masses (stone) struggle to assert themselves. Beneath its surface, Weatherbeaten rhythmically enacts the clash of Titanic forces for which the ocean's ceaseless hammering against the rocks is the archetypal enactment.

It's the Sublime of Church and Thomas Cole's wilderness paintings finally free of the trappings of European Romanticism. These paintings confront the viewer with a landscape no longer tenable as a symbol of the transcendental divine or otherworldly. This is realism pulled up hard against a wall of broken rock and cold, shattering ocean - a hard, material confrontation with insensible matter.

Homer's Prout's Neck studio is open in the spring and fall only, and tours have to be booked in advance. Consisting of some 35 oils and watercolors on loan from all over America and the world, the Portland Museum of Art's "Weatherbeaten, Winslow Homer and Maine" stays up until Dec. 30, 2012.

Don't miss Sebastian Smee's review of the exhibition in the Boston Globe.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Three Watercolors by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Mountain Fire, c. 1905. Watercolor.
I love paintings that seem to purposely waver between representation and abstraction. It's as if the artist's restraint in letting go of precise, hyper-realistic details helps make the underlying abstract design more visible. 

John Singer Sargent, Gourds, c. 1907. Watercolor. 
In these watercolors by John Singer Sargent we witness a great artist's joy in finding temporary release from the high-pressure precision of society portrait work. Sargent turned portraiture into a very lucrative "rock star" caliber career, but it was a golden cage he found increasingly odious.

In his watercolors, painted largely for their own sake, he seems to respond directly and exuberantly to the qualities of dazzling light, vivacious line, and vibrant warm-cool color combinations. I've written before about the powerful abstract qualities of his work.
John Singer Sargent, White Ships, 1908. Watercolor
I'm becoming ever more convinced that, regardless of subject, a painting's success depends upon just two things: abstract design and the color relationships that form a part of it. That goes for Rembrandt's Old Testament narratives, Rothko's color-field paintings, Sargent's portraits, as well as his ecstatic, energy-charged landscapes in watercolor and oil.