Landscape portraiture in the early centuries of colonialism had a rugged, conquering aspect to it, when artists were rushing to be the first to most dramatically depict new territories at the edge of empire. Our era is less driven by these concepts, so we won’t go looking for Coles and Bierstadts at Seattle Art Fair. Below are a range of landscapes on display that are lovely in their ambiguity.
Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery (New York, NY), Booth A4
“The Way to the Sea” by Yorgo Alexopoulos
“The Way to the Sea,” an amazingly intricate sculpture and animated lightbox by Yorgo Alexopoulos, is a sort of postmodern Bierstadt. Its paradisiacal depiction of waterfalls and cascading vegetation evokes a similar awe in the observer (while also sharing DNA with those animated tropical scenes you see in Chinese restaurants). But unlike the idealized exoticism of past landscape painting, “The Way to the Sea” openly declares its artifice. The spilling of the sculpture through the glass, the disc slicing out of the frame, the surreal hypersaturation all point to the virtuality of the scene. It absorbs and repels simultaneously, questioning our expectations of the natural world and any art responding to it.
Pace MacGill Gallery (New York City, NY), Booth A7
“Wall, Near Los Indios, Texas” by Richard Misrach
“The greatest wall you’ve ever seen!”
Well…not quite. But “Wall, Near Los Indios, Texas” is a great photograph by renowned artist Richard Misrach. Misrach’s oeuvre is wildly varied in its subjects, but invariably melancholy. He goes to the fringe of habitable landscapes and shows desolation and isolation, human determination and folly in the same image.
The sovereignty of city-states (and the tyrants behind them) was often determined by walls in ancient times, and in our time in the United States, the idea of a southern border wall has become part of the popular imagination (more as farce than an achievable idea). Misrach has taken many photos of walls in Texas, including the border, but none is more pitiful than this, surrounded by a little greenery and the tracks of endless comings and goings in desolate field where the horizon itself is barely visible beneath the haze.
“Cabbage Crop and Wall, Brownsville, Texas” by Richard Misrach
Compare with “Cabbage crop and Wall, Brownsville, Texas,” wherein the wall stretches into the horizon along countless rows of blue-green vegetation. On a purely formal level, it’s a magnificently framed shot, which splits the image between the dark land and sky, parted by the wedge of the fence. It’s Misrach’s craft that distinguishes the photo from countless other, more banal agricultural images. And it is also Misrach’s voice, to those who know it, that opens the image to deeper interpretation. The edible sea of green and the pale blue sky are calming, and the wall itself offers a sense of enclosure. But then one considers that this landscape is, in fact, unnatural and destined to be stripped bare by the labor of many for the consumption of many more, none of whom is present.
Sullivan Goss – An American Gallery (Santa Barbara, CA), Booth B24
“Spring Rain” by Leon Dabo
Leon Dabo was painting in New York in the early 20th century, 100 years after Thomas Cole helped define the landscapes of the Hudson River School. Like his contemporary back in the old world, Vilhelm Hammershøi (whose work is featured in The Frye Art museum at the moment), Dabo abjured the masculinist, pioneering depictions of the New World, which in his time was feeling less than new, following the Industrial Revolution and growing urbanization. Also akin to Hammershøi, Dabo reduced evidence of human impact on the landscape and sublimated the earth into luminous, misty visions. The sky often dominated the canvas, but even when it didn’t, its atmospheric effects dominated the land below. “Spring Rain” is characteristic of this, but includes an almost surrealistic pair of skinny trees, bridging the cloudy sky and soggy earth. Vaguely human forms and a teetering fence exist only for scale; the world is so much larger, both glorious and ominous.
“The Sentinels” by Chris Peters
Contemporary painter Chris Peters chooses a more arid climate for his subject, but still the radiance of the heavens is evident. In “The Sentinels,” we don’t see the bright moon lighting the Joshua Trees in the foreground and the bank of clouds in the background, but we sense it is full by how stark the shadows are…or is it all just city light? Being a common subject for both photographers and painters, the scene borders on kitsch. But Peters executes it beautifully, choosing his subjects and his lighting well, taking one into the scene and giving it an otherworldly tone that rewards closer examination and a longer view.
The 2016 Seattle Art Fair runs from August 4 through August 7. Learn more and buy passes on the Seattle Art Fair website, and check out all our coverage of the booths, events and the vision of the fair as a whole.