Coast to Coast: The American Landscape, showing through February 28 at Elder Art Gallery, is a serendipitous overview of landscape painting, a small interpretive look at our American visual frontier. At face value, the paintings are snapshots culled from our vast homeland vista, and on an engaging level, they are peeks into the minds of the painters, as well as opportunities to see the world through another's eyes. Looking at landscape paintings is always an exercise in stretching our empathic, and ocular, muscles. The artists are personal trainers for our mind's eye, and they will sometimes take us to our limits.
All of these paintings are representational. Meadows, bridges, backyards, coastlines, valleys and mountains are all here, and each landscape is twisted, turned, exaggerated, simplified, diminished, skewed or skewered by the artist's hand and eye. This is a "That's how I see it" show, where you will see paintings of places you know internally, having never been there. It's also a "What the hell is that?" show which can reveal the viewer's own interpretive bias relative to what a landscape is, or can be.
The best painting in the show is "Maria's Roses" by Joseph Spangler. I'm not alone in appreciating this painting — the painting sold three times, but, happily for the first buyer, only the first sale stuck. It is a construction of ascending walls and roofs viewed over a backyard fence or a high window. We look down and into a patch of green lawn garden with a central bouquet of roses. Utility lines traverse a swatch of blue sky and cumulus clouds. Buildings in the distance recede to a single point perspective. What is so appealing about this painting?
Lines — hand rails, power lines, window mullions — and planes — doors, brick walls, roof lines and chimneys — build from the bottom of the canvas to a patch of blue sky at top and center. The ascending planes are sun lit from the front, as if the light pours from the face of the viewer. The understated backyard view of a tiny, cloistered and well kept backyard is seen as if we peer over an alley fence, and the view seems intimate and hidden, though not secret. The view over the fence comes as an unexpected surprise.
In this show, two painters push the landscape toward the fantastic. You say expressionist, I say impressionist. This ilk of landscape painting always says more about the painter than the landscape. It's the Van Gogh complex. The best paintings of this type make you think the artist really saw the view as he painted it. The best of the best take you there with him, and lets you see it, convincingly, as he did. Then, hopefully, the artist lets you go.
"Evening Menagerie" by Carl Blair ventures to an internal cosmos where few men have dared venture. Fewer still return from the fantastic voyage unscathed by the bite of self-absorption. Some forever vanish from human (art) history into the funnel of fantasy. Blair paints a valley of cobalt blue fir and deep vermillion spruce dappled across a dark tangled line of evergreens. A bright yellow line of trees stands in front of distant mountain peaks. A blue and yellow river rises vertically through from the bottom center of the canvas and winds through a grassy green valley.
We've never been here. It's the valley of the night blue sky above the kaleidoscope ground cover. If you're in the right mood, this painting may excite and delight; but here and now, the painting tastes like cotton candy in a dry mouth. Pardon me, is my bias exposing my limits?
Leandro Manzo is a more palatable wild man. His painting "Beyond the Park" is a swirling vortex of color and movement disguised as a landscape. He paints from the vantage point of a desirable fever. A distant path crosses the horizon line, turns left and rushes toward us, then veers abruptly off the canvas in two directions an instant before impact. Trees in the foreground, white and sinuous, twist in the wind like weightless taffy. A cliff ascending from the roadside is a color-infused plume of burning gas. This is not a bucolic, edifying or pacific stroll through a natural setting. Where Blair's landscapes are giddy, Manzo's are frenetically engaging. The painting makes engagement a tempting offer.
That school of thought that recognizes a hidden piece of paradise in the painted landscape is also represented here. In the late 1800s, painter George Inness reduced our grand American vistas popularized by the Hudson School to a more subjective and intimate portrayal of landscape as an interior and spiritual experience. Inness reduced the natural world from grand to intimate, reinventing the American landscape as the inner-man scape. Painter Romanos Rizk does the same thing.
Rizk renders Zen Meditation in pigment, paintings which lure you to natural settings with the promise of a temporary retreat. It's a place you may recognize conceptually, but have yet had the good fortune to visit. Rizk softens our edges as he blurs the space between water and sky and earth. We are in his watery cove, with the blue-black water reflecting the overhanging trees and the water's edge concealed by lush growth on the river bank. Reeds sprout and paddies float. Wet green reflections fade to black beneath overhanging branches. The sky is seen only in the water's reflection. The whole green, blue and black composition fuses into an alchemy of stilled reflection. Romano Rizk's nature is narcotic.
Then there's the hallucinogenic school of landscape painting. Jocelyn Audette paints electrified snowscapes. "Aspen and Oak" is a copse of white bark trees fronting a swath of bushy orange trees run horizontally across the canvas. A web of bare naked branches loft through the blue sky like staccato calligraphy. Blue shadows cut into the frozen white ground. A single Aspen in the foreground juts through the snow, a skinless arm with twisted tendons running over and through its muscled surface. Audette manages to wed the ancient art of trompe l'oeil with a surface thickened cartoon image to create a plugged in and shivering animated image. She ignites the frozen landscape and the sleeping forest awakes.
None of this work is "difficult art." On seeing this show, I'm graced with a reprieve — from the procession of prosaic important decisions, from bad art, from another confrontation with difficult art. This show is not a trial by fire, no epic struggle, and you won't walk away from here a better man. The only challenge you face with these American landscapes is with your own aesthetic sensibilities — not with your ethics, your tolerance or your sanity. It's a small grace, really, if only by serving as a reminder that we don't have to be challenged to be delighted. A cup of unearned pleasure, please, and hold the guilt.
The exhibit Coast to Coast: The American Landscape will run through February 28 at Elder Art Gallery, 1427 South Boulevard, Suite 101. Call 704-370-6337, or go to www.elderart.com, for more info.