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'Eden is Burning'
Contemporary painters find beauty and anxiety in an out-of-control nature.
Feature by George Melrod

Samantha Fields, 'Containment #26,' 2009, Acrylic on canvas, 6'' x 6''

Born in London in 1775, the fabled British Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner never had a chance to visit the rugged wilds of California before his death, in Chelsea, in 1851. Most likely the thought never crossed his mind, occupied as he was with his raging seascapes and brilliant British landscapes and rich Venetian vistas, all saturated with light in a way that would be forever associated with his artistry. However, one can’t help feeling, over a century and a half after his death, that if somehow he could make the leap through time and space to pay a visit to the Golden State, he might feel quite inspired. If ever there was a painter who derived stimulation from the violent grandeur and drama of the natural world--fire, fog, storms, snow, and sunsets, as well as more destructive catastrophes--it was Turner, and if ever there was an American landscape worthy of Turner’s theatrical, ephemeral craft, it is California. While the vision of Turner’s golden afternoon sunlight radiating from behind the local mini-mall or Pizza Hut might make for severe indigestion, anyone who’s tried to drive from Southern to Northern California on the 5 via the Grapevine Pass in a mid-winter blizzard would surely feel at home in Turner’s 1812 depiction of Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps during a snowstorm. Perhaps the artist might enjoy grappling with a tangerine dreamy, smog-saturated SoCal sunset over our own dainty marinas or Venetian canals. Or soak up the dramatic rains, fog, mudslides, or (thankfully less frequent) earthquakes. And then, of course, there’s the fires...

Today, in many ways, we are living in a Turneresque world. As global warming continues to impact our meteorological global ecosystem, and the subject of natural disaster continues ever more to permeate the public consciousness, contemporary artists are increasingly engaged with negotiating humanity’s relationship to its troubled landscape. And toward that end, a subset of California painters seem to have picked up on some distinctly Turneresque themes.

One of Turner’s themes is an elucidation of the concept of the sublime. Although prominently bandied around by such 18th- and 19th-century British writers as Edmund Burke and John Ruskin, the exact definition of ‘the sublime’ in landscape art remains fluid. Burke made a distinction between the sublime and the (merely) beautiful, noting that the ‘beautiful’ tends to be small, smooth, light, delicate and generally unthreatening, whereas the ‘sublime’ tends to be vast in scale, massive, dark, gloomy, or obscure, provoking fear or terror, contemplation of danger, or other thoughts or feelings that might elevate the mind of the beholder. Ruskin, by contrast, did not find beauty and the sublime to be mutually exclusive, although he too felt that greatness in scale was a central part of the equation; rather his approach to landscape trumpeted a faithful depiction of nature, through use of formal and textural nuance that was true to its natural subject.

Tellingly, when it came to their depictions of the natural landscapes of North America, the Hudson River School painters of the 19th century were also informed by a sense of the sublime, portraying the great vistas of the American panorama as a lush, untamed Eden. Painters such as Thomas Cole (1801-1848), his protege Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Thomas Moran (1837-1926), and others, captured the wilderness of the American continent just at the moment it was being tamed by the westward onslaught of immigrants, industry, and railroads; their vast illusionistic canvases presented idealized visions that were steeped in a profound sense of the sacred, and successfully branded the American landscape for generations. (Created in the age before cinema, one might say they were the equivalent of a 3-D ‘Avatar’ for their generation). That sense of the West, and in particular, California, as a rugged, unspoiled Arcadia continued well into the 20th century, with photographers such as Ansel Adams, modernist painters such as Arthur B. Davies, as well as many lesser plein air painters eager to celebrate the natural beauty, if not necessarily the harsh sublimity, of the Pacific Coast Parnassus. It all gets so pretty that it is almost a relief to jump ahead to Ed Ruscha in the 1960s. By now, the conflicts underlying modern culture and the would-be Californian Arcadia are being exposed in a new form of Pop landscape painting, through vernacular imagery, bold colorful graphics, and that ubiquitous Southern California threat of fire. In fact, several of Ruscha’s iconic landmarks get set on fire in his works: there is Norms on La Cienega, a Standard station, of course, and memorably, the original high modernist campus of LACMA. Yet even in Ruscha’s other works, his Standard station and Fat Boy building (warehouse? diner? auto repair shop?) appear with acrid yellow or lusty orange hues hovering behind them: evocative of a stunning, smog-infused sunset or the implicit threat of glowing fire looming just over the (chronological) horizon. While these works are certainly captivating, they are, in Burkean terms, sublime--that is, frightening, eerie, obscure, gloomy, and compelling--not beautiful in the unthreatening sense at all.

If scary is sublime, we have clearly entered a rather sublime century. With natural cataclysms from tsunamis to Katrina reminding us ever more forcefully of our global vulnerability, and more locally, one devastating, record-setting fire after another topping headlines in Southern California, it is little wonder that such disasters have influenced the lexicon of contemporary artists. In particular, one can point to several painters who have found a visceral muse in the region’s fires. While perhaps missing the acid wit of Ruscha or the spirituality of Turner (who still found time to document the burning of the houses of parliament in 1834), they nonetheless mark a bracing update to the gauzy Edenic language of previous generations of U.S. landscape painters. But they also represent a striking reflection on the reality of living in a moment and geography dominated by natural forces which seem to be careening ever further out of control.

Intriguingly, Los Angeles painter Samantha Fields was inspired by the paintings of the Hudson River School from an early age: in particular, a large 1860 landscape by Frederic Edwin Church called Twilight in the Wilderness, on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in the city where she was raised. Featuring thick, dark grey and salmon clouds over a lemon yellow sunset and a dark, wooded lake and rolling hills, it is an aptly brooding landscape, and helped inspire her to pursue art; after studying at Cranbrook, Fields moved to LA in 1999 to teach at Cal State Northridge. Nature gone amok seems to be Fields' special obsession. Her unsettling paintings of brightly colorful mutant animals in the early 2000s gave way in 2005-06 to a renewed interest in the Hudson River painters. After a period of studying the harsh weather in the rain-soaked hills of LA, and the inland California deserts, she took a residency in Nebraska’s ‘Tornado Alley’ and documented the funnel clouds and thick looming thunderheads, and dramatic skies and lighting effects, in a series of paintings that she showed in 2007. With their churning clouds and roiling skies, the works are very much about the force of elemental nature; with fauna, flora and even the land itself almost excluded, they could almost be depictions of an alien planet.

Fields’ recent, knockout show at Kim Light/Lightbox Gallery in Culver City, titled ‘Containment’ (which ran November 7 - December 19, 2009), showed the artist pushing forward her craft--and her investigation of natural disaster--to a whole new level. Coincidentally or not, the show opened less than two months after the devastating Station Fire ravaged a vast swath of the Angeles National Forest north of La Canada Flintridge (and in doing so, set up conditions for the violent mudslides that afflicted those communities over the winter). The show’s title refers to a phrase that has become all too common to Californians living in fire-prone zones: that is, the level to which a wildfire has been enclosed and controlled. As such, it suggests the inherent conflict between humanity and the natural forces it seeks to hold back; rather than just depicting these elemental forces in themselves, it implies a battle line wherein humans must confront and rein in the power of nature in extremis. Yet although the subject depicted is vast in scale, the works in the show--with the exception of one large painting--are quite petite: only six inches square; the exhibition featured nearly a hundred works, arranged around the small gallery space in a grid-like band three paintings high. This contrast--between the vast, frightening, murky, elemental subject depicted (i.e., the sublime aspect, a la Burke) and the almost delicate beauty of the visions engendered--charges her works with a powerful frisson. Each one feels like a tiny glimpse into the grand arena of man vs. an out-of-control nature; set together, they could be various angles and stills from a riveting documentary.

Fields’ singular technique--a refined airbrush of acrylic on canvas, accented with occasional elements of brushwork--lends the works a singularly evocative and atmospheric texture, one that Ruskin, and perhaps even Turner, would appreciate. Although each view is unique, most involve the intersection of land, sky, fire and smoke. In Containment #11 or Containment #26, a line of glowing fire works its way across rolling hillsides, amid clumps of vegetation, as thick white smoke rises upward, obscuring the view. In Containment #10, the orb of the sun burns through an acrid skyscape, above a dark sliver of silhouetted ground, the fire itself revealed only through its gorgeous/noxious effects. Others works also cloak the fire to emphasize sooty clouds of smoke. In some, like Containment #16 or Containment #28, the fire weaves its way through the center of the frame in menacing, serpentine loops. In Containment #5, we see a rare human presence, in the silhouette of a helicopter, seemingly as inconsequential as a mosquito against the plumes of white and gray smoke, like a still from a modern-day firefighter’s ‘Apocalypse Now.’ And yet, we see no fire in that image. Perhaps in that one, nature has been contained, for now.

If the Hudson River painters painted, in part, to raise an alarm against the encroaching forces of industry and humanity, then in a sense Fields is working from a similar stance, if far later in the battle, warning against the forces of global warming and a nature made increasingly virulent in part from our own human intervention. Quoted in her exhibition catalogue, she explains: ‘I travel the same road as the Hudson River School painters, and paint these scenes for a similar reason, to inspire awe in the face of planetary destruction. I paint the beauty within the disaster.’

Another California painter who has found a convincing muse in the state’s fires is Santa Barbara painter Nicole Strasburg. Santa Barbara, of course, has suffered its own terrible fires in recent years, including two significant fires in 2008, the Gap Fire, in July, in Goleta, which burned over 8,350 acres, and the Montecito Tea Fire, which burned nearly 2,000 acres in November, tearing through some very pricey real estate and destroying 210 homes. Strasburg, who works out of the more staid tradition of landscape painting, locates the fires within the range of elemental forces inherent to nature. Thus, her autumn 2009 show at Sullivan Goss Gallery, entitled ‘Air, Earth, Fire, Water,’ placed her fire paintings among a larger series of works featuring imagery of clouds and waves. In some paintings, the licking flames of fire suggest golden fields of grass, curls of dried brush, or the dynamism of ocean waves. In others, they are ferocious masses of orange and yellow, made all the more dramatic by their contrast to dark backgrounds, or the artist’s vigorous brushstrokes. In several of these works, such as Gap Fire, Day One or Omen, the fire in indicated only by its ominous plumes of smoke. As destructive as they are, her fires represent a dynamic transformative energy that is as much as a part of nature as the vegetation they feed on, or the water, clouds and earth that frame them.

Taking an opposite approach, LA-based painter Marina Moevs creates stylized realist paintings of natural and human landscapes, often in the wake of cryptic disasters. Floods, fogs and fires tend to predominate. Several of her works depict splintered two-by-fours floating in gently rippling waves; in others, the interior of homes are shown flooded or in ruins. In Fire IV (2007), a row of homes is shown both flooded and on fire, the flames and smoke reflected with eerie calm in the water in the foreground. In Smoke (2008), a home perches at the edge of row of trees in the background, saturated by a glowing yellow and orange light amid a delicate film of smoke. Presented in vertical rectangular formats, her works are almost windows, directing the viewer into haunting landscapes that appear redolent with danger and the evidence of nature’s potency.

James Lavadour, an abstract painter of mixed Native American descent, based in northeast Oregon, approaches landscape through his own dynamic, expressionistic language. In recent paintings like Red and First Meadow Lark, the slashing swatches of yellow, orange and red clearly indicate fire, but more than that they present an experiential sense of what a forest fire feels like. Yet Lavadour’s use of fire as a subject has nothing to do with Biblical iconography of burning Edens or an encroaching threat to human society, rather it seems as much an essential part of nature as the colors he employs are essential to the spectrum. Denver artist Nathan Abels paints cryptic scenes deconstructing the interstices of natural and human habitation, where mysterious wilderness intersects with quotidian society. Hints of danger abound. In his painting Wildfire (2009), from his current show at Denver’s Rule Gallery, lines and licks of flame rise in an ink-black nighttime landscape, as the stark white beacon of the moon illuminates gusts of wafting smoke. In its eerie spectacle, nature has co-opted humanity in its nighttime light show; from what we see, it is hard to tell whether the fire is burning in a desolate tract or if the specks of light indicate a neighborhood in peril. The fire merely is, and all we can do is watch and wonder.

As evidenced by this small cross-section of contemporary painters, the subject of wildfire can be addressed through a wide spectrum of a vantage points: as a violent but vital extension of the forces of nature or a threat to human society; as the symbol of a human-influenced, globally warmed nature gone amok, or of the Edenic ideal of western landscape set aflame. If only from an ecological and art historical point of view, these last interpretations are particularly loaded. As societies around the globe continue to reap the whirlwind of destruction from extreme weather, global warming, pollution, and other, more direct planetary depredations, such themes will only grow more prominent in artistic discourse. That these visions are at once anxious and frightening, beautiful and sublime, is no contradiction. Mother Nature has many faces. Some of them are angry. As these artists point out, it’s best to get used to what that aspect looks like, to stand back and contemplate its sublime ferocity. It won’t be going away any time soon.

This article was written for and published in art ltd. magazine.

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