“So, when I have the strength to be honest, I do not hope to experience again the space I loved as a child. The loss is the single hardest fact for me to acknowledge in the American decline. How we depended on space without realizing it—space which made easier a civility with each other, and which made plainer the beauty of light and thus the world.” –Robert Adams

Framing these thoughts through his camera’s lens, American landscape Photographer Robert Adams visually defined the changing American West. His influence is keenly felt in Contested Terrain: Painting the Modern Landscape at Joslyn Art Museum through September 16, 2012. The work of seven artists, organized by Joslyn for this exhibit, conveys a contemporary urgency regarding today’s American topography. In a technologically driven world the use of paint as a medium of choice effectively reconsiders landscape, and our relationship to it. The installation of Contested Terrain, divided into two separate galleries, disrupts the viewing continuity ironically amplifying the exhibition’s theme.

Chuck Forsman, one of the show’s participating artists, spoke optimistically at the artist conversation of “trying to avoid the denial of a bitter legacy” historically found in the stories and experiences of the American West. “It’s God’s eye view looking down,” Forsman said. “The challenge is the formal problem of finding a way to incorporate these things into the landscape.” “Sacred Cows,” a painting of the Clifton-Morenci copper mine in Arizona, set against the rim of the Grand Canyon, is a case in point. The beauty of this painting underscores  Forsman’s formidable skill. His technical mastery of paint and composition creates more curiosity about his subject. The iconic cow in “Sacred Cows” brings both points of view into focus, integrating narrative with image.

“We all make our work as a political statement,” said painter Karen Kitchel, also in the show. “A main driving force for me is questioning the triggers which enable us to look at landscape differently.” Kitchel uses oil on panel in a square format. The “Promontory Series” is presented as ten individual square foot panels arranged in a grid format on the wall. The close-up view of grasses and plant life isolate the intimate experience of being in Nature, fully present to one’s surroundings. Kitchel’s fluid paint handling and skillful brush strokes infuse each panel with a startling aliveness. “By eliminating the horizon line and the way squares are arranged, what you’re picturing is your self in the land. The viewpoint moves the domination by bringing things up close,” she said.

Like Kitchel, James Lavadour also uses panels on the wall arranged in a grid format. In contrast with Kitchel, he focuses on perceptual discoveries informed through the act of painting. Growing up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Lavadour experienced early on his unity with the land and the forces which form it. Through the kinetic action of making the painting the image emerges and becomes its own meaning. The 15 panels of “Straight Ahead” capture a sensation of speed, force, and motion. The scraping and layering of the paint pushes and pulls blues, reds, and yellows to construct a land made completely by hand. Recognizable landscapes grow out of the convergence of these painting ‘events.’  Painting came to be considered an event during the Abstract Expressionist period of the mid 20th Century. “Galaxy” by Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956), a beautiful example, can be seen in the museum’s Permanent Contemporary Collection.

Presentation is the first issue to consider in the paintings of Jean Lowe. The huge canvas of “Ranch Cielo”, with a faux painted frame punctuated by grommets speaks immediately of satire. The loose paint handling underlies craftsmanship intent on delivering a punch line. Divided almost in half, the upper part of “Rancho Cielo” evokes the expanded vistas of 19th C. landscape painting found in works such as Joslyn’s “Mountain Landscape” by Gustave Doré (French, 1832–1883). The land tract under the skies of “Rancho Cielo” shows a vista graded and terraced for a new housing development. The scale of the canvas says “sprawl”, and indicates a reach which exceeds the grasp of what is actually happening to this land.

Alexis Rockman incorporates abstraction along with other visual and literary resources in his creation of apocalyptic images. “The Berkshires” displays a huge paint-encrusted cloud dissipating over roof tops. The helicopter hovering in the upper left of the composition is almost microscopic in comparison with the deluge of overwhelming vapor in the space. Rockman describes himself as a Pop artist questioning the impact culture plays in the evolution of natural history. Rockman’s two paintings on paper show an impact which might be huge.

The devastation of Industrial logging is also taking its toll in the world of “Clear Cut” by Michael Scott. The tangled and cut trees in the image’s foreground sharply contrast with the luminous sunset. The distressed landscape is beautifully painted, heightening the tension between earth and sky. The painting seems to ask “Who did this and what is there place here?”

Don Stinson asks other questions. The illusionistic depth of “Llano Estacado: High Plains, High Stakes” is interrupted by the diptych format. The panoramic vista is an abstract scaffolding of points, coalescing and dissolving in a continual sensation of motion. Will the land be able to absorb the sweep of wind turbines proclaiming industrial life? “This painting occurred over five or six years,” Stinson said. “That landscape is a historical Comanche battle ground. Any development on an industrial scale is huge. This is one of those things I’m trying to get a handle on, this and global warming. Use your imagination and creativity. Use your mind and tools. This is how I try to understand the world.”

In The Great West Illustrated Celebrating 150 Years of the Union Pacific Railroad, a separate exhibition also on view at Joslyn through September 16, the photographs of Andrew J. Russell document the expansion of Union Pacific across the continent from Omaha. The introductory essay for this exhibition states that this collection of photographs “asserted that the best way to understand this unusual region was through the new medium of photography, rather than painting or illustration.” This begs the question, “What can photography show us that painting can’t?” and how does each painter in Contested Terrain utilize the potential of paint to communicate a vital truth about our relationship to this land right now? Though the paintings in this exhibition reveal a beauty surviving, in spite of industrial development, one can’t help but wonder how the narrative of this precarious balance will play out.

Robert Adams framed the question in his essay “In the American West is Hope Possible?” “I think it’s a choice,” Karen Kitchel responded. “If you choose hope, I think making art is one of the most hopeful things we can do. We choose what world we want to make, getting up every day.”

Contested Terrain Painting the Modern Landscape continues through September 16, 2012 at Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge Street, Tue, Wed, Fri, Sat 10 am – 4 pm, Thurs 10am – 8 pm, Sun noon – 4 pm, (402) 342-3300, admission rates at http://www.joslyn.org/visit/

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