More Than Mere Beauty
The Big Sur landscape itself is enough for some--but not all--outdoor painters.
Thursday, March 14, 2002
Photo: Plein to See--The Monterey Museum of Art''s "Land and Legacy" exhibition shows plein air paintings of lands preserved by the Big Sur Land Trust. Shown is Johnny Apodaca''s "To the Sea"
''Land and Legacy: Plein Air Paintings from the Big Sur Land Trust" is an exhibition that can be appreciated on several levels. The 90 paintings by 47 artists tell the story that art can change the world--if not the greater world, then the immediate one. The show is also an essay about landscape painting, artists and their relationships to their subjects, and picture-making versus authentic art-making.
The exhibition, at the Monterey Museum of Art''s La Mirada facility near El Estero Lake, joins three groups for a common cause. Hosted by the Monterey Museum of Art, organized by the Big Sur Land Trust and populated with painters focusing on the coastal lands protected by the Trust, the display provides viewers with a walking tour of the familiar mountains, rolling hills, rocks, waves and moods of the Big Sur coast and environs.
Two groups of painters contributed to the exhibit; one is an actual affiliation of like-minded artists from the Santa Barbara area; the other an unaffiliated group of locals who were invited by the museum to paint two or three paintings on some piece of property that the Big Sur Land Trust has protected.
The Oak Group formed in Santa Barbara 15 years ago when several artist friends who enjoyed outdoor painting realized the coastal bluff they were depicting was scheduled for development. They held an exhibition of those paintings to publicize the disappearance of yet another piece of prime property. It worked. Membership grew, a name was decided upon, and the Oak Group set out to preserve numerous tracts of land around Santa Barbara and later Marin, and now Monterey County.
To date, their efforts have raised $1.5 million, donated to such organizations as The Nature Conservancy, The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, The Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Point Reyes National Seashore. As California grows and developers continue to lick their chops, painting becomes a political tool to actuate change.
Many of the locals presented are familiar names: Johnny Apodaca, Dick Crispo, Michael Kainer, David Ligare, Melissa Lofton, Barry Masteller, Alicia Meheen and Branham Rendlen. Their disparate approaches serve as a counterpoint to The Oak Group, whose love of painting outdoors is underscored by the political intent.
Since Poussin and Lorrain introduced the landscape form as a major player in their allegorical painting in the 17th century, artists have looked to the natural drama of light and land to embody ideas running the philosophical gamut. God has been seen in the thunderhead; redemption sparkles in the earliest cleansing rays of the morning sun.
Then again, cascading light on a hillside can be embraced for its own sake.
The artists and alliances of artists to explore the myriad possibilities loom large in the canon of Western art: Turner, Constable, the Barbizon painters, Courbet and the Realists, the Impressionists in Europe, and the Hudson River School in America. These artists explored the landscape form in all its manifestations, and imparted to the viewer, through paint and conviction, a vision of existence beyond the landscape forms.
With an exhibition of 90 landscapes, it''s informative to look for not just the picturesque, but for some element of the artist''s connection to the land. It is painting''s unique quality as an art form that it can exist as a surface experience or penetrate deeper, through the alchemy of creative decision-making and soulful response, to express something profound and even mystical.
One of the biggest challenges facing all the artists who set up their easels along the coast was the sheer beauty before them. Dramatic interaction of sea and land, the sweep of coastline, the muscular mountains'' mercurial mist filtering light amount to one awesome, seductive view after another. How does an artist "capture" it? Where is the artist in the face of it?
A survey of these paintings reveals a heavy reliance on the tried and true; landscape after landscape smacks of the familiar, their rectangles composed in the theme-and-variations of a painting manual. The paint handling tells what is in the scene without revealing much about the painter behind the scene, except that he or she is a clever illusionist. For some, this experience is enough; painting doesn''t have to be, shouldn''t be, any more than that.
Two happy exceptions to the formulaic can be seen in the paintings by Johnny Apodaca and Elizabeth Murray. Their different styles share an attitude, so refreshing in the face of the illustration around them. The landscape in front of them is a vehicle for their artist-selves; they aren''t slaves to the scenic and wonderful.
In Murray''s "Notley''s Landing," there is a confluence of energy as pigment-laden brush defines mountain and field and sea. Hers is not a record of a scene--she has not been moved by the picturesque--but it''s an announcement, through gesture and color sense, that the land is a great body, both permanent and ineffable, existing in her painter''s touch.
Apodaca, who for years has happily trudged across the county''s hills to set up his easel, is represented by works that show the land is in service to the artist. He, like Murray, has eschewed the breathtaking view in favor of that seen in a glance, a fragment of nature that provides the framework for idiosyncratic paint and color. Through his unique approach, the viewer doesn''t learn how pretty the coast is, so much as his joy and release in the process of painting.
In a time when so much precious land is at risk--by oil drilling, mining, housing, malls--it is a blessing that an art organization like The Oak Group is committed to the cause of land preservation; so much the better that they paint popular pictures and have fun doing it. It''s also a relief that there is some room left in the landscape form for a personal approach that penetrates something more profound than the picturesque.
"Land and Legacy: Plein Air Paintings from the Big Sur Land Trust" opens March 16 at La Mirada, 720 Via Mirada, Monterey. 372-3689.