The Cyclorama Show: Master of Fine Arts Thesis Exhibition, SMFA  May 13-18th, 2014

photo credit: Carol Gander

Believable Constructions: the Painted Landscape

Painting landscape in the 21st century is a complicated endeavor.  The definition of landscape is up for debate as “open space” and “environment” have come to carry political as well as practical meaning.  Outside of rural living and national parks, the landscape with which most are familiar is one that is greatly altered, if not entirely designed, by humans.  In my paintings, I strive to discover what the 21st century landscape looks like and to come to terms with how that differs from the past.  As much as my work is about landscape, it is even more about painting: the act of painting, the history of painting, the visual and tactile experience of viewing painting. I’m interested in making a painting that reveals it’s a construction, while also asking the viewer to believe it.

My interest in the state of everyday landscape grew out of a body of work that focused on childhood spaces. I turned towards the relationship between the people inhabiting a space and the space itself, as well as the man made objects placed within them. In this way, I came to understand backyards as domesticated landscapes. As I moved away from personally significant spaces, what remained was the idea of constructed environments.

I am drawn to spaces where landscape is either manufactured or controlled to a degree where the tension between man and nature is highlighted. These spaces do not serve functions outside of acting as pleasure spheres or a place for social communication and interaction. These are not large-scale farming or industrial landscapes, providing agricultural, infrastructural or political functions. They are created with through design and intended to mediate our relationship to the natural world. In an average backyard, the human/nature power relationship might only extend so far as pruning, weeding and carelessly strewn plastic objects; in my work I look for spaces where this is exponentially expanded.

In the search for spaces that exemplify this dynamic; I looked to images of orchards, parks, public gardens and historical sites. All of these spaces serve specific purposes for visitors: simulated wilderness, illusory tranquility, invented quaintness. I researched the sites and how they have altered over time. The changing public opinion towards palaces and estates or how a family farm became a commercial enterprise fascinates me. I’m interested in how the public’s relationship to a space can evolve and reverse over time and how these can contradict with the preservation of and current promoted uses of such a space. In Split Colonnade, Roman Gardens, the ruins have been excavated and preserved, but not restored.  Like a carefully designed park, it’s a kind of facsimile experience: a space that allows a visitor to transport themselves into history, while still maintaining the superiority of living in the present.  The spilt view functions as a metaphor for a place that appears to signal the past, but could only exist in the present era. An enthusiasm for history aids my critical reevaluation of landscapes, allowing me to express in paint my ambivalence about how we arrange environments.

I want the way in which I chose to depict these spaces to be reflected in the way I paint: the construction, composition, color and material application. In Double Viewpoint, Jardin du Luxembourg and Split Colonnade, Roman Gardens, this is reflected in my process: I create compositions by collaging together several areas within a location. My repurposing reflects the original human intervention onto the environment. These stitched-together scenes create surprises and challenges in perspective. The agriculturally useless rows of trees in a public park can allow for subtle but disorienting perspectival shifts upending the pictorial space and creating visual unease.

The pairing of artificial and natural color that results from insertion of man-made objects into landscape infects my palette. Some paintings become an acidified version of the everyday while others revel in fantastic brightness in all the wrong places. 

Through the method of painting, I am revealing the level of construction of these places and reconstructing them in paint. The language and experience of physically painting the work drives what the final image looks like. In building the spaces, the images are blurred, scraped, scratched; color is exaggerated or de-saturated. I use abstraction, not as obfuscation, but as a tool to enhance the sense of artificiality and to displace the viewer.

In Desire Path, the surrounding architectural space dissolves as the physicality of the paint describing snow builds up. In Parking Lot Pile, an accumulation of brushstrokes functions as a description of fallen leaves and as a receptacle of labored, inquisitive mark making. The solid asphalt floats as a single wash of translucent violet, allowing thick shadows to simultaneously sit upon and below the ground. These kinds of contradictions let the painting teeter on the edge between holding together and falling apart. Non-essential landscape features: gravel, dirt, anonymous paths become repositories for the complexity of the space, allowing the paint to spill out the bottom of the canvas towards abstraction. Patches of white and flat color call into question the figure and ground relationships as well complicating the reading of the true subject. As the work slides in and out of legibility and representation, I hope the artificial nature of both these environments and my medium shines through.

Painted images can be observed and desired, but never physically entered, mimicking the disconnection between what we want from nature and what it can give us. There is an unknowing in paint, a intrinsic lack of control preventing the painter from completely designating both what the physical surface does and how the eye will receive it. I want to push my painting as far as possible, creating works where the elements simultaneously adhere and devolve, quivering on the canvas. When combined with the mercurial human relationship with nature, my approach seems the most appropriate way to investigate the constructed landscape.


photo credit: Carol Gander