In the beginning, landscape painting served a functional duty. It set the scene for the action in front of it; religious icons and martyrs waged their lives before rolling hills cradling villages.
In later times, a highly detailed, realistic landscape documented a countryside or city the way a photograph now does. The invention of the camera eclipsed that movement, leading to the golden age of landscape as most viewers know it: Impressionism.
Today, landscapes appear to carry on under the dubious brushes of Bob Ross, Thomas Kinkade and legions of hobby followers. However, high art landscapes aren't dead. Contemporary artists have now revamped the genre, taking modern, sometimes aggressive approaches to the old sky-background-foreground format.
The landscapes they paint no longer act as a substitute for a window to the outside; instead, they assume the roles of visual diaries to the artists' world within. Four artists specializing in this customized landscape make up Personal Paradise: Contemporary Perspectives on Landscape Painting, opening Friday, Sept. 11, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in the El Pomar Galleries.
Personal Paradise begins with realistic styles and seeps into the more abstract, flowing through the works of Eric Pérez, Theodore Waddell, Kay WalkingStick and Julia Fernandez-Pol.
Tariana Navas-Nieves, FAC curator of Hispanic and Native American art, assembled the four carefully, not only by merit of their work, but for their wide range of experiences and backgrounds. The artists also connect with the FAC's permanent collection, which specializes in Native American, Hispanic and American art, says Navas-Nieves.
Thirty-seven-year-old Eric Pérez, of the Coyoacán suburb of Mexico City (Frida Kahlo's hometown), aligns with the most traditional sense of landscape painting in terms of style. Yet Pérez's paintings don't represent actual physical places. "All the landscapes I paint are totally imagined," he says, "I would call them 'moments.'"
"[His] art is not a pictorial depiction of a physical landscape, it is actually a representation of the ideas and thoughts those places evoke in him at a particular time," says Navas-Nieves.
Similar to Andrew Wyeth's hyperrealism, Pérez's almost disturbing level of clarity hints at such a metaphysical world. Every blade of grass or cloud sheath, be it in the foreground or the background, receives equal treatment, nothing fades or blues in the distance, as it does in nature.
"My work is nourished by visions of many places, it does not pretend to represent places in space, but moments in time."
Big sky country
A former cattle rancher and professor, Theodore Waddell's landscapes are the most closely related representations of actual places in Personal Paradise. From his home outside Dillon, Mont., Waddell, 67, speaks of the horses in his neighbor's pasture, and mountains in the distance he's gazed upon for years. His working method involves internalizing a landscape deeply.
"I have to be in the landscape where I live, in order to do what I do. I can't do it any other way," he says.
Horses and other animals populate Waddell's scenes, brushed roughly on flat fields. Their shapes, though distinct, avoid a western flavor. Navas-Nieves describes Waddell as "working into abstraction."
Waddell's large-scale pieces, in this show measuring 10-by-18 feet, attempt to capture the vast country of his home.
"I once lived on a ranch where I could see 150 miles in any direction," he says, "and there's something that's really quite magical and majestic about that."
Most of Kay WalkingStick's paintings are diptychs, two-part works joined together. Navas-Nieves describes it as "the spiritual and physical self, past and present, night and day, her biracial origin, abstraction and figuration. And those two parts are always connected, somehow."
WalkingStick, 74, grew up with her Scotch-Irish mother in upstate New York, studying Native American history extensively due to her father's Cherokee/Winnebago heritage. Her work today incorporates Native American designs, such as the geometric patterns from parflêche bags (purses embroidered by women of plains tribes), as well as references to past events.
"Hear the Voices," while not a diptych, depicts a long, desolate valley, headed by mountains and footed by plains that bleed into red. "Voices" portrays the Montana site in the Bear Paw Mountains where Chief Joseph surrendered to General Nelson Miles after a gruesome battle. WalkingStick sketched the area on site a few years ago, saying, "I felt that you could hear the voices of the dead. It's a very spooky place, a very beautiful place."
"Voices" possesses a particularly aerial silence, given the mysterious standpoint of the viewer. Without any background on the scene's history, the desolation and distance still rumbles with an underground flicker of loss.
Easily the most luscious of the works in the show, 25-year-old Julia Fernandez-Pol's paintings don't outwardly reference "landscape" at all. Rows of petal-shaped daubs peel back from a vortex of encaustic scraped shapes rimmed with beads of colors, all made from paint. Awash in the frosting-like hues, viewers dizzy in sensory overload.
"She sees the natural world as it is seen through a microscope or a kaleidoscope," says Navas-Nieves, adding, "They are actually so thick, we joke here that in 50 years they'll still be wet."
Fernandez-Pol's unconventional appropriation of landscape on what looks like a cellular level, or inside a twisting prism, does have earthly connections. She cites glaciers she's visited in Patagonia and the Great Barrier Reef as inspirations, yet she employs her imagination more prevalently.
From a simmering seabed to a troubled mountain expanse, the sharp clarity of a dream to the brushy, endless plain, these landscapes distill a vision of an emotion, a memory or a moment in time.