Landscape Art that Depicts More Than Nature

The artist’s depiction of landscape is a subjective experience of the outdoors, a cultural and psychological construct.

Brian Robertson, “The tiny teacup meets the big black mass” (2017), acrylic on panel, walnut artist’s frame, 31 x 61 in (all images courtesy CES Gallery and the artists)

LOS ANGELES — Landscape, as a concept, is not about nature. As suggested by the word “Psychonautics,” CES Gallery’s title for its group exhibition of paintings, drawings, and sculpture, the artist’s depiction of landscape is a subjective experience of the outdoors, a cultural and psychological construct. The difference between landscape and nature could not be starker as we destroy the environment we depend upon, hurtling toward our own extinction. This is not to suggest that landscape art is no longer important; it continues to be a revealing screen for projecting the preoccupations of both artist and viewer, and occasionally provides an opportunity for heart-stopping beauty.

Sarah Weber, “While I fall further and further behind” (2017), Prismacolor color pencil on Strathmore, artist’s frame, 34 x 54 in

Immediately after Donald Trump was elected president, Sarah Weber started work on “While I fall further and further behind” (2017), a large and engrossing colored pencil drawing. She was looking for respite, and the image includes her four-poster bed just left of center, floating in a sea of flora and light, in colors that verge on pastel but do not become cloying. I have never seen colored pencil achieve such softness of surface, becoming almost liquid at times (Weber worked in layers, often three or more applications). The space of the picture is peaceful and alluring, deep and complex, and not at all tangled despite its proliferation of detail. I defy anyone to look at this drawing without feeling a sense of wonder.

Lisa Sanditz, “Cleared Lot” (2010), acrylic and oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in

Lisa Sanditz, whose palette is generally vibrant if not supersaturated, delivers a gem with “Cleared Lot” (2010), a 16 x 20 inch painting depicting a muddy-gray heap of earth and garbage out of which grows a spunky tree at an impossibly rakish angle. The central trash heap dominates: it is thick, smeary, and ought to repulse, but is filled with flecks of pink, blue, red, and orange that give it surprising life. The upper half of the canvas is sky, summarily noted with horizontal gray strokes tinged with luminous blue and lavender. Left and right of the mound are bright yellow-greens and reds connoting flowers, or maybe plants. Who knows what they are, but they infuse this painting with joy. Perhaps this is Sanditz’s comment on the Anthropocene, in which we clear the land for yet another structure. In this instance, however, a little tree heroically asserts itself where a developer has walked away after the financing dried up.

Installation view of Psychonautics at CES Gallery

Elizabeth Huey contributes two paintings, the larger of which is “Soon Means Soon (Eames)” (2017), eight feet wide and nearly as tall, showcasing Huey as a terrific colorist. A dreamlike scene is framed by two buildings, one at the left edge and one at the right. The left building is decidedly pre-modern architecture, with similar houses off in the distance behind. The right-hand structure is mostly glass, following the Eames approach of simplicity and integration with nature, while inside are some figures and a very primitive computer. The buildings embody two opposing philosophies of our relationship to the world: dominance versus coexistence. The middle of the picture is occupied by a luminous pool of water fed by a stream running down a rocky cliff side, rendered in glowing orange, rich dusky purple, and ochre. It is a nighttime tableau, the evening sky an inverted triangle that fills nearly the entire upper half of the picture, with a large, bright moon suspended just below its top edge. On either side of the moon, radiant mulberry and scarlet break through the dark clouds. Figures inhabit the landscape and buildings, but the specific narrative is unclear, the situation being closer to the surreal activities of a Neo Rauch painting.

Robert Gutierrez, “History Timing” (2017), gouache on diptych panels, 21 x 12 in

Among the smallest pieces in the show is “History Timing” (2017), by Robert Gutierrez, a 21 x 12 inch diptych gouache made of two stacked panels. It is a highly abstracted landscape resembling a futuristic science fiction scene. The color is jewel-like, making the most of its gouache medium, and I was happily lost in the melting topographies and odd architectural structures. Extra points for weirdness: at the top right and left corners of the lower panel, two human eyes stare out with their lids partially lowered, as if bored by the gawking art lovers.

Two of the most internal works are a black-and-white acrylic painting by Brian Robertson, “The tiny teacup meets the big black mass” (2017), and Tristram Lansdowne’s watercolor, “New Horizons I” (2016). Robertson’s work is a beautifully constructed, deeply silent image of a white teacup on a dock, the prow of what appears to be a rowboat drawn up alongside on the water. In the boat sits a blurry black conical form, which I found weak and unnecessary, but I was so enchanted by the extraordinary rendering of the wavelets comprising most of the image that I gave up my quarrel. Landsdowne’s meticulous watercolor feels especially philosophical, an interior with a cozy armchair facing a lit modernist fireplace in front of a large window overlooking a cityscape backed by mountains. As we work our way back in space, we move from the domestic, to carefully controlled nature, then to urbanity and finally to the insurmountable power of mountains. Not a bad metaphor for our present position on the precipice of human existence.

Tristram Lansdowne, “New Horizons I” (2016), watercolor on paper in artist-made frame, 30 x 31 in

Psychonautics continues at CES Gallery (711 Mateo St, Los Angeles) through April 16.

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