Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Landscape?

Every artist faces daunting questions. Not just from their colleagues, but also from people who don't know anything about art. Among the most popular and diabolical are, "Why do you paint?" and "Why do you paint what you paint?"
As a landscape painter in 2007, I feel like the latter question is always floating around my studio, even if no one is saying it out loud. Landscape painting has a long history. It also has a long history of being looked down upon. During most of art history there was a genre totem pole. Every genre had its stringent rules and its place of esteem on the pole. History painting was at the apex, while landscape, though seemingly related, was far below.
In current times the stigma of the past continues. It's no longer the rule, but its prejudices pervade. To make matters worst new prejudices have sprung up everywhere. Ever since Impressionism, (ironically, landscape driven) the art world is always on the look out for the next avant-garde. At first, this adventurous spirit was obviously needed in the art world, in hindsight. Imagine being so uptight as to find Monet offensive and worthless. But after more than a century of racing toward the new, the shocking, and the next revolution, the cycle is getting denigrating to most forms of painting.
To contemporary art, landscape is perhaps the most warn and banal subject. Landscape is seen as scenic, decorative, shallow, simple and done to death. Two insights are laking in this judgment.
First, landscape is pervasive in human experience. In fact, without the land and the resources landscape portrays, people would not exist. Landscape is visually interesting and has endless conceptual possibilities. If you've ever been on the banks of a rushing river or under the canopy of deep forest, you've probably experienced something spiritual. And on the edge of that river it is probable to think how inconsequential and vulnerable you are. This notion of human humility, so rare, and yet so truly our state in the universe, is expressed best by landscape.
Second, what truly makes art great is not the shock, but the subtleties. Don't get me wrong, shock can have value--sometimes a good shock is just what people need. But shock, newness and surprise should not be valued above all else. In fact, shock is not painting's strength. Eventually painting will run out of revolutions, while clever and rich subtleties will remain. One can already feel the friction and heat in the art world over the increasing difficulty in finding something totally new and novel. Landscape is a great forum for the flourishing of subtleties.
But what it ultimately comes down to is I want to paint landscapes, so I'm going to. My friend said this of the issue. When he hears someone look at one of my paintings and say, "Landscape?" he wants the reply, "It's ****ing uncompromising." I couldn't agree more.

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