Goodbye, hello, landscape painting

A farmed valley, vast under the fanning rays of a setting sun. A cottage, petite and cunning, set beside a singing brook. Cliffs and gulls; the stray grassy knoll and placid cow.

At best, the words “landscape painting” can conjure images of such bucolic vistas — a sort of pastorale cum Rousseau — casting in miniature the glory of innocence. (The view is usually seen at a remove, as if its unspoiled nature depended on the viewer’s remaining a hill-and-dale away.) At worst, the genre is redolent with “prettiness,” solemn and cheesy — the work of the vacationing hobbyist, who, having trundled his easel to an advantageous summit, sights the land below with pointing index finger and perpendicularly projecting thumb, looking for all the world like Bugs Bunny laying on the ham.

All these notions, though, are challenged to the core by Beyond the Mountains: The Contemporary American Landscape. The exhibition, now on display at the Asheville Art Museum, draws upon the work of 24 American artists to prove that the art of landscape painting is alive and well — just different from the old days.

Take, for example, Ken Aptekar’s oil-on-wood painting “We Only Ate Bacon … .” Sure, it’s romantic enough: A man and woman, both in old-fashioned dress, in repose at the side of a lake, one holding a net. Wrought in an almost Pre-Raphaelite palette of greens and golds, trees sweep up the painting’s middle, their sumptuousness bleeding into the blues of the lake.

But the scene, like a rare specimen, is enclosed beneath a bolted sheet of glass, exaggerating one’s sense of separation from the image displayed. Etched across the glass are the words: “We only made bacon on breakfast cookouts by the lake. The stove in our kitchen vented on the side of the house facing the Klopmans, who kept kosher.” Oddly flat and quirky, the words speak to the idiosyncrasy of the imprisoned landscape, which is perhaps remembered accurately, perhaps not.

Malcolm Morley’s “Bait Drums” takes an equally unusual tack. While the artist sets the watercolor in a Maine fishing village, he chooses to look away from the harbor’s mouth (presumably replete with picturesque watercraft and winging gulls) to evoke with vivid, loving strokes the bait drums that sit on shore — the landscape behind the landscape, as it were.

Of running horses and demented aunts

What’s at stake in Beyond The Mountains may be less whether landscape painting is outmoded than whether painting itself is.

“Painting seems to be the demented aunt that no one wants to bring to the party,” observes guest curator Michael Klein, former owner of the Michael Klein Gallery in New York, which closed its doors in 1996 after a 12-year run. An articulate, likable man with black, curly hair and a New Yorker’s voluble ease, Klein laughs hard enough at his own statement that it takes a moment or two to complete his thought. With society’s emphasis on technology, he goes on to explain, younger artists are experimenting in video, photographs and “multimedia explosions,” leaving painting behind like a doddering forebear.

But one of the highlights of Beyond Landscape, at least for this writer, is the chance to revel in painting’s distinctive pleasures. In Gregory Amenoff’s “North II” — a whimsical seascape in which the stars above communicate with the starfish below — the paint is as rich and voluptuous as any mystery. In “Orchard,” Joan Snyder uses mud straw and oils in roses, pinks and mossy greens to create an almost tactile impression of plenty, as if the canvas, like a body, were producing excrescences — a sense heightened by a board below the painting that holds the rose-spattered overflow.

“Landscape is something I’ve been very interested in,” says Klein. “Because we live in a time when there are no rules — and really no movements, per se — I’ve gone back to overall themes, in order to talk to people about contemporary art. I don’t think that [the show’s] artists would necessarily consider themselves landscape painters, in the tradition … of 19th century landscape painters, or even of impressionism. But they’re infatuated by it — there’s a beauty to it, a shared history that we have with … the wonder of nature, [its] confusion, the endless struggle of man versus nature.”

To capture the diversity of what’s going on in the art world today, Klein broadened the definition of landscape, visibly relishing the contradictions and juxtapositions that ensued. In one room of the exhibit, Alex Katz’s large oil “Yellow Field” is all buoyant abstraction, romping across the canvas in the blazing yellows and greens of late spring, the rough brush strokes careless and joyful; while, nearby, Helen Miranda Wilson’s tiny oil “Blue Mountain, Taos Pueblo, NM” depicts the scene in such precise detail that, peering into the painting, one almost expects the cirrus clouds to suddenly race across the field of view and disappear behind the frame’s nether edge, as if the picture were not a painting at all, but a magic looking-glass.

By improvising on a common theme, Klein hopes exhibit visitors will move beyond such labels as “abstract.” But it’s equally important, he says, to include some more-immediately accessible paintings in the show.

“It’s very important to engage the whole community — because I don’t think that smashing people over the head is the way to get them interested in art,” says Klein. “Ideally, in a museum situation, you have things that people can learn from and understand immediately … and then you can bring some other things into it.

“I think when people hear ‘contemporary art,’ they’re ready to go to war,” he continues thoughtfully. “They’re ready for a swinging penis; they’re ready for a rape scene.”

A vivisected cow?, suggests Xpress.

“Exactly,” answers Klein. And, he continues, many viewers are also afraid they won’t be cool — or smart — enough to understand the art. That’s unfortunate, he adds, “because these painters desperately want an audience.”

Accessible art doesn’t have to mean ready-to-eat schlock, however. “I think that something the show doesn’t have is a great deal of sentimentality — there are no sunsets [and] birds flying off in the distance, or horses running in the wind,” notes Klein, with the pre-emptory hand gesture that signals when a player is best ushered from the stage (and hastily, at that).

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