Most of the attention in today's art world seems to go to work that is more abstract than landscape painting. In fact, there are quarters of the art world where any kind of representational art is frowned upon. It's true that when an aspiring artist first takes up the brush a nave landscape painting is the probable result. But we live in a geography that lends itself to landscape more than any other subject. And those who are good at landscape painting stick to the genre because their patrons make it financially rewarding for them to do so.
When Rodney Wood decided he needed a really exceptional exhibition to welcome Daniel Breckenridge, the new director of the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs, landscape was what he chose. And the curator he selected for the show was Laura Reilly, one of the most successful landscape painters and instructors in the area.
Together, Wood and Reilly decided that the Strata Various show ought to be invitational, and, given the wealth of quality painters in the state, it should be limited to those closely connected to the Colorado Springs community. "This was not an attempt to have the 25 best landscape artists in the area," Reilly said. "We could have had 10 shows and not included all the great landscape painters around here." But the primary criteria was that the artists have some kind of tie to the Springs," she said, "either from teaching or living here at one time."
A second criterion was getting a broad range of styles of landscape painting. "We wanted a really diverse range of work that would demonstrate what landscape really means," Reilly explained. The result is a collection of work that runs the gamut from the expressionist pieces of Sushi Felix and almost fauvist work of Fran Dodds to the meticulous, exacting painting of Divide, Colorado's Lee Cable. In between are pieces from artists like Deb Komitor who uses rich reds and blues to create her oil-on-clay landscapes.
One of the potential problems in hanging the show was the diversity of size involved in the 70 pieces submitted. "I was concerned that some of the smaller, more intimate pieces might be overwhelmed by the larger paintings," Reilly said. "But that didn't happen, which I think speaks to the power of those smaller works."
One of the many individual highlights of Strata Various is Tracy Felix's "Long's Peak," a typically stylized rendering of snow-laden megaliths jutting from the Colorado forest. A dense angel-wing cumulus undulates above the peaks, buoyed by an insistent undercurrent of stratus wisps. Felix's manipulation of space has taken something that, in other hands, could have been banal and turned it into a magnificent image. The mountains and clouds enjoy a weighty physicality that pushes the viewer to accept the three-dimensional reality of the scene in spite of its idealized tone.
Mariya Zvonkovich has contributed an oil painting titled "Yellow Morning." The wheat-yellow background is bisected by a thin line from which five irregularly spaced trees cast their evening shadows. The effect is a deceiving simplicity counterbalanced by the artist's dynamic brushwork and unusual color choices. One can sense the movement of the sun beyond the frame as the tree shadows stretch across a supple plane of fractured gold.
Local favorite C.H. Rockey has several inspiring pieces in the show including "Ochre Color of Spring Runoff," an impressionistic view of a Manitou watercourse turgid with melted snow. Rockey's gestural application of oil creates shifting tints of light that congeal into an engaging description of the rushing stream. Everything on the surface is broken up into brush stokes of varying sizes and shapes. The ones in the foreground are thicker so they tend to come toward you, but the most noticeable quality of the scene is its tactile character.
Several painters Reilly considered to be "up and coming" were also solicited for work including pastel artists Pat Dagnon and Judith Brown. Dagnon's work is characterized by a dark palette and an evocative moodiness that impart a gripping sense of isolation in pieces like "River Twilight." Judith Brown, on the other hand, is a more traditional landscape artist whose anxious touch produces literal works like "Maui Magic."
Reilly's own piece titled "Some Roads Are Like That" is one of several alla prima, plein-air works in the show. In describing the technique, Reilly characterized alla prima as a process in which the entire painted surface is created in a single sitting, resulting in a unique freshness. "Some Roads Are Like That" is characteristic of Reilly's oil work with pleasing combinations of warm and cool colors and a strong touch yielding an energetic style of landscape.
Virtually all of the show's work is remarkable for its quality. However, entries from Lee Cable and Don Van Horn are surely among the best landscape works available anywhere. Both artists produce work that is photographic in detail while preserving the lustrous color and tonal qualities possible with paint. Van Horn, a watercolorist, has created an opulent urban world in pieces like "Brooklyn Bridge -- Evening" and "Union Station at Night." Cable's lyrical painting titled "Sunset Range" enjoys a similar photo-realistic quality with warm rich colors set off by the opacity and matte finish of the gouache medium.
Given the diversity and range of work in Strata Various, readers looking for a fresh view of landscape painting will want to set their sights on this exhibit.