Julian Hatton’s Bewilderness at Elizabeth Harris Gallery brings visitors up to date on the artist’s alliance with a natural world that seems to reluctantly acknowledge its role in his art. The feeling one can get from these paintings, the bewilderment one soon shares with the artist, derives from what the work suggests as a mutually respectful yet mildly adversarial relationship between an animated nature and a skeptical observer. With a copious gift for invention, expressed through witty references to flowers, trees, rivers, pathways, and other landscape elements — elements that change roles from one painting to the next with the agility of an improv group — the paintings evolve into stand-alone redistributions of each vista’s essential parts. Landscape, as we think we know it, is a vital yet restrained subtext.
The logic of landscape painting (a slight misnomer considering the tangles of painterly interpretation) is where Hatton’s efforts are concentrated. Consistent with the perplexity implied in the show’s title, vigorously overlapping perspectives are pulled into a unified whole made of delightfully unstable parts. The variety this strategy produces is impressive. For instance, “Wishbone Point” (2018–19), one of five large canvases in the main gallery, corrals patches of sky and elongated tree trunks, through sudden shifts in scale and brushwork, to reveal a meeting of water and land that appears to owe as much to the imagined as to the witnessed.
The composition’s divisions have an oddly unifying effect on both topographical features and abstract impulses. Perhaps analytical whimsy is the best way to characterize their consolidation. The balance between the recognizable and the invented in the exhibition is rendered more complex by a couple of outliers typical of a Hatton exhibition. This show’s most experimental nonconformist is the near-manic “Early” (2017–18), a panel that agitates as if in the throes of its own creation. Coarsely delineated fields of high-keyed secondary color, in barely contained billows reminiscent of Katherine Bradford’s shambling forms, are saved from their impending mannerism by the artist’s gift for pictorial order, an attribute that distinguishes Hatton’s work from a number of his contemporaries. A few well-placed diagonals are all it takes to check the canvas from its own internal chaos.
These outliers testify to the artist’s ability to nurture his restlessness within the parameters of landscape. The common ground of landscape painting, even when loosely defined, allows an artist to invent freely while avoiding novelty. The variety is evident when comparing “Early” to “Tamarack Creek” (2018–19), which is as structured as “Early” is nebulous. Intense color matched with acute contrast and a sure touch leave the viewer with a genuine sense of place. An implied dusk illuminating a ribbon of dark loam spills over into a foreground where plan and elevation tilt in uncertain angles, creating a sense of ambiguity similar to that of a forest floor. As any hiker will warn you, assume nothing about the ground below your feet.
Most of the smaller panels in the gallery’s second room are more sketchy, suggesting the artist’s habit of developing a composition through a process of incremental studies. Several are real gems. “Inside the Bloom” (2017–18), a frame of cobalt blue sitting calmly within a field of pale ochre, has both the soft light and the understated serenity of a Fairfield Porter interior. “Finch” (2017–18), though a mere 24 inches square, is the most thoroughly resolved panel in the show, a sunset hill scene with a coyly ambiguous figure in the foreground.
From the abstract “Pot” (2018) to the unusually straightforward “Streaming” (2018), a canvas that echoes 19th-century American Luminism, Hatton’s Bewilderness demonstrates how liberating a painting genre can be when approached with inventiveness, humor, and intelligence.
Julian Hatton: Bewilderness continues at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 26.