“To simply paint a beautiful image to sell in a gallery,
no longer satisfies.”
By David D’Agostino
See his work in WTP Vol. V #2
The natural landscape never extends beyond the immediate view of the observer. It is always framed, sometimes by a physical intervention like a window, but often by the more psychological design of what we want to see. And especially the field of vision created by landscape painters who crave a certain light, a certain palette, a certain beauty.
Artists love to paint the beckoning landscape and consumers love to purchase it. Landscape painting, including those created by pivotal artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, has always designated something to be consumed, often by tourists. Paying close attention to space and color to elicit a sense of serenity, solitude, and nostalgia, artists draw viewers into peaceful narratives devoid of human habitat, a nature free of the influence of human activity. A survey of artist statements provided by various galleries in Santa Fe and Albuquerque (both historic landscape-painting meccas) reveal a common desire to include what is alluring and delete what appears to be scarred.
But this in an age of environmental collapse seems almost bathetic, trite. The image of the polar bear stranded on the iceberg can haunt us, and traditional landscape painting, including 90% of what is sold in Santa Fe, becomes ideologically suspect—nothing more than a decorative object sold to whoever can afford it. Beyond this more commercial gallery scene, today’s contemporary art museums tend to favor depictions of climate calamity and the activist discord associated with it. Most regional contemporary art institutions, like SITE Santa Fe and 516 Arts (Albuquerque), broadly define environmental art as art that depicts social and political issues relating to the natural or urban environment, including habitat loss and declining water supplies. And contemporary artists who work the global circuit—like the graffiti artist Banksy, and conceptual artist Ed Ruscha, whose work includes paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and films—have inserted environmental messages into painting for many years.
All the same, the art world continues to be divided. Most landscape artists, younger and older, paint the beautiful picture. And this work will sell to markets that desperately want its redemptive force present in their homes and offices. In this age of visceral disconnection and ceaseless busyness, to own a gorgeous, textured painting free of harsh realities can perhaps be a sane necessity. Yet, in the hotbed of debate about global warming and the demise of species, some artists prefer to depict fact over fiction. To simply paint a beautiful image to sell in a gallery, no longer satisfies. But can landscape painting be included in this definition?
Many artists say it can—artists from different backgrounds who include landscape painting within the scope of environmental art, a genre that traditionally includes earth art, installation art, and performance. These painters are graduates of various university painting programs as well as self-taught artists—including many Native artists who often merge their personal narratives with issues of environmental destruction. Athena LaTocha, currently exhibiting at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, unfurls large rolls of paper on the floor and immerses herself in the painting, much like being in the landscape. Working from the inside out, she disperses a palette of earth-toned inks with distilled water and industrial solvents. Her paintings aggressively confront the destructive effects of oil and gas extraction on Native lands.
Scott Greene, who was recently selected for the Western edition of New American Paintings, No. 126, mixes and remixes the landscape into tipsy paintings that cause visual dizziness while effectively mirroring in unexpected ways the self-destructive absurdity of modern life:
Nina Elder is perhaps one of the better-known artists in New Mexico who paints a contemporary landscape glutted with cell towers, fracking machinery, waste sites, storage units, telephone lines, burnt tress—all stretched against vast, breezeless vistas. In a recent interview she said: “There are no puffy clouds or romantic shadows. The places I paint are the same every day; things like winter or dusk or sadness do not affect them. Industry is an indelible mark on the land I love, and I paint the same hard lines and affectless presence that are inseparable from a realistic view of the southwestern landscape.”
Elder takes on her subject with precise research and an investigative curiosity that yields a complex network of almost cruel industrial starkness underlined by a certain finicky desire to delete any emotive beauty. And although her work sells in galleries, she provides relief from the ubiquitous unobstructed, overly color saturated painting.
I wonder how she would depict the American moose? A grand historic symbol of the untamed wilderness, it is often painted as a hardy creature towering from Teton cliffs above expanses of pine forest. Today, it is suffering from one of the most rapid die-offs of any mammal in North America—losing 60% of population in the past twenty years. One of the leading causes of death are warmer-weather-induced brain worms, which results in an agonizing process of slow brain rot and starvation.
Is it fair to ask when will painters begin to acknowledge this species’ extermination? Is there an end game to painting that deletes all that is ugly and disturbing in our natural landscape? Or will we embrace unencumbered beauty until the last moment of extinction?
No one wants a dying moose on their wall. Unless, of course, as patrons they possess a rare environmentally conscious framework toward landscape painting (or they simply perceive a good investment!). Nina Elder and a handful of other artists in New Mexico may be painters that connect to this emerging view.