Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 16, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Chapman University Guggenheim Gallery, and the author. The essay was previously included in a brochure for the exhibition The Frustrated Landscape, held September 3 through October 11, 2002 at Chapman University Guggenheim Gallery. Images from works in the exhibition were reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the brochure please contact the Guggenheim Gallery through either this phone number or web address:
To Move the Stars
by Eve Wood
In his novel Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert tells us "no one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, or conceptions, or sorrows. The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars." These words suggest that the endeavor to create anything, or to exist at all with grace, dignity and wit, is its own sad discipline for the simple reason that what we hope for, deep inside our lives, often falls so far from the reality of where we find ourselves. Still, our dreams have their secret amplitudes, despite this "frustrated landscape." Artist and curator, Tyler Stallings, whose work is also included in the show, recognizes the delicate balance between what we imagine, and the truth of what we find there, wherein the "frustrated landscape," becomes a point of mediation where broad vistas, sweeping hills and impossibly fluffy clouds collide with a synthetic ideal rooted in the artifice of popular culture.
All the artists included in this exhibition confound our assumptions of beauty, and indeed even go so far as to falsify, for themselves, as well as for the viewer, the ideals and expectations we've come to live by. Hills should never be blue, and snowflakes should never be black, just as the sky, were it to turn red overnight, would make us suspicious that the world as we know it had finally reached its end. We long for the perfect scene of elevated beauty we know somehow is unattainable, yet we hold out for this nostalgia, at once fated, yet strangely satisfying. We recuperate ourselves in the pauses, in the spaces in between where meaning thrives without our knowing how or why.
Tom Allen's landscapes are swelteringly beautiful, yet somehow we mistrust this odd and sinister vision. The power of his images is eerie, irregular, derived from the peculiar sense that were we to wake up inside one of his paintings, we could not bear the heat, the intense colors, the disjunction between what we expect to see and what is actually there. The cold burns. The heat freezes the world to ice. In "Frozen Windmill," the sky looks like the mouth of hell, moving from red in the lower right corner, to dark seen and blue in the upper left. The windmill is stilled, itself a bad omen. Historically, windmills have positive associations since they conduct the wind, transforming it into energy and power. In the nineteenth century, artists such as John Constable created idyllic scenes, and windmills were often painted into the distance amid an expansive, rural landscape. They were considered symbols of tranquility, solitude and spiritual transcendence. Allen's paintings stem from a German Romantic sensibility, full of mist and deep shadows, yet possessed of their own heat. His windmill broods the sky open, churning cold fire, only to stop, frozen in the orange sky, to let the world burn. (left: Tom Allen, Frozen Windmill, 2001, oil on linen, 28 1/2 x 41 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles, CA)
Similarly, Faris McReynolds' paintings suggest their own dark narratives. His figures also stand inside a frozen moment, awaiting a reprieve that may never come. In "Let's Go to the Middle," a heavy metal-like character leads a little girl by the hand into a clearing. The image simultaneously suggests both a beginning and an end, and raises many questions. Who is leading whom? The child stares ahead into the distance while the man gazes down at her, as though seeking counsel, or relinquishing his adult's position. Is there a forest beyond the clearing, and is the moment they stand inside simply a respite from the dark? McReynolds avoids giving us answers, except to indicate that the unexpected is always expected, and vice versa. (right: Faris McReynolds, Let's Go to the Middle, 2001, Acrylic and pencil on canvas, 96 x 72 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton Gallery, Los Angeles, CA)
Ruby Osorio's paintings of nubile girls on the brink of breaking out into fierce and fiery womanhood, profess their own strangeness. In Osorio's work, "Reconsidering Eve," nature is conflated with desire. Flowers hang their heads; sensuous and loose, and young women balance on the edges of leaves, or pick red apples in a lustful frenzy. Osorio's landscapes are unique in that the figures depicted comprise a kind of human terrain of experience and mischievous curiosity. Osorio's little women want the world, and the world wants them. Branches bend to meet their faces, and apples gleam with an impossible phosphorescence, as though lit from within. Who wouldn't want to be them for a day, or even an hour -- to taste the dew that falls from the leaves into their mouths only? One gets the sense, however, that the natural world they inhabit would sadly be too much for any of us to endure. (left: Ruby Osorio, Reconsidering Eve (detail), 2002, gouache, thread, and ink on paper, 50 x 186 inches, Courtesy of the artist)
Tony de los Reyes is another artist for whom traditional landscape painting practice takes form in a uniquely personal aesthetic. de los Reyes' imagery, as in "Le Jardin d'incident," is directly influenced by Rococo painting, his own paintings lush and creamy; de los Reyes' chosen color palette of blue and white emphasizes further the elegant simplicity of his imagery, whereby he creates a nearly frothy seduction, like drowning slowly in a bathtub filled with heavy cream. Yet, these paintings seem somehow dangerous, the multiple curls, the pirouettes of color and shape, and the rupture of unexpected detail, lead us deeper into a complicated scene that feels oddly stifling, the cool colors, leading us back out again, as the tight lines create a feeling of urgency. de los Reyes uses specific tones to "declare an explicit refinement of taste that is elite and precious." The types of blues and whites used refer to the "chinoiserie of the Baroque/Rococo period, which was used in the 18th century to buy and sell exotic (but inauthentic) objects of art. The process by which de los Reyes creates these paintings echoes the meticulous precision and elegance of Rococo painting. Looking at de los Reyes paintings feels akin to losing your mind, softly, irrevocably, with the least amount of resistance. Flaubert's Madame Bovary would most certainly approve. (left: Tony de los Reyes, Project de Sculpture en argent..., 2002, oil alkyd on panel, 28 1/2 x 56 inches, Courtesy of the artist)
For several of the artists in this exhibition, the "frustrated landscape" translates into open-ended images that are haunting and enigmatic. Tyler Stallings' painting "The Black Snowflake," poses a set of unsettling questions from which the image derives its power. In the upper right corner of the picture plane, a tiny black snowflake incises the sky, cleanly, like a razor to a rabbit's pelt, while below, two brown hares sit huddled into each other, one gazing up, confused or resigned, at the punctured horizon. Similarly, Stallings' "The Fiery Pelt" seems a bizarre homage to the 19th century huntsman, though the "red pelt" could also been seen as a reference to Saint Peter in Michelangelo's Last Judgment, who sits holding the artist's rendering of his own loose skin. In Stallings' paintings, the "next moment still to come" becomes an anchor where time seems to pivot around to face itself. The hare knows the black snowflake could be his undoing, to cut him out of the scene entirely. (right: Tyler Stallings, The Black Snowflake, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, Courtesy of the artist)
Finally, Wayne White's jaunty landscapes celebrate perversion with charm and wit. "Sugar Tit" looks almost like "bad" motel art, those seascape paintings from the 1970s with seagulls and sailboats, yet pushing across the sea, luminous and watery, are the words "sugar tit," the last thing one might think of while gazing out to sea, held in some private reverie, or weighing the "magnitude of life' s worries," only to behold this unexpected surprise. White's landscapes fly hard in the face of convention The text overtakes the landscape, towering over the shoreline, each letter standing in ubiquitous formation, like soldiers invading paradise. This odd and disorienting effect is further heightened by the fact White paints directly onto lithographs, creating another disjunction between the kitschy artifice of the image itself, and the manufactured gesture of "building" with letters. White's work also references Ruscha's "Standard Oil" painting where the letters extend out from a one point perspective. The images are funny, and scathing, and profess to be nothing more than they are, the sea seeming to beckon the words in as the shore pulls hard to keep its "sugar tit."
All of these artists struggle to beat out their tunes, whether for dancing bears, naughty little girls balanced at the throats of flowers, or alienated brown hares amid fields of snow. The common thread that connects the works in this show is each artist's desire to translate conventional imagery on their own terms, at once electric, synthetic, manufactured, and calibrated to a highly personalized individual perception of the natural world in the wake of history and this new-fangled popular culture.
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