Landscape Show at SRO

New Show at SRO

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On January 18 a new show opened at the SRO Gallery on Dean Street. It was organized by one of the gallery's two owners, Cecilia Whittaker-Doe. It is called “Unextinguished: The Episodic Landscape,” and it contains three works each by six artists, one of them being Whittaker-Doe herself. The other five are Cathy Diamond, Moses Hoskins, Sheila Lanham, Sahand Tabatabai, and Cathy Nan Quinlan. Lanscapes are of course pictures of nature, an infinitely complex subject with a long history in art going all the way back to the caves at Lascaux, some 17,000 years ago in which are depicted the flora and fauna of the Paleolithic period as well as humans hunting animals. Nature has been a resource – it is where our food comes from, we have a relatively conflicted relationship to it – we kill things there and use nature to grow what we want, and it is beautiful, inspiring, even sacred. In literature it can be tamed into wonderful gardens, and these exist in virtually all different cultures and it can be an enemy, a hostile environment of storms, hurricanes, tsunamis, a wilderness of cold or heat where it is difficult or impossible to survive. In contemporary history it is also under the most severe attack of all human history. Through abuse of the environment, humans are working their way towards one of the great extinctions of life on the planet. The title of the show, a reference to a Theodore Roethke poem, acknowledges the contemporary threat but leaves room open for hope, and the subtitle indicates the variety still possible within the form.

To begin with Whittaker-Doe, she has set her three works so they don't stand together, emphasizing the connections to the other artists. As one moves clockwise around the room they form a progression. (She also has a fourth painting in the window that I could not see very well.) “Standing Near a Shadow” with its dark brown shades seems to place nature at a distance. Shadows tend to suggest something disturbing, and nature contains much that can disturb – wild animals, poisonous vegetation and more. In this picture, however, whatever might threaten is muted. The atmosphere is more somber than dangerous. The second painting is “So Far as I Could See.” It is much brighter and more welcoming. A wonderful set of colors found in various textures tell one to move forward and explore. There even seems to be a path. And finally there is “Where the Dance Begins,” which to my eye celebrates nature as the fertile source of life. There is a pink central area and from it life seems to bloom forth exuberantly. It reminded me of certain works by Georgia O'+Keefe.

Other artists suggested other connections to me. Sahand Tabatabai seemed to me linked back to the impressionists. All three of his works refer to the Valmont Cottonwood to be found in Colorado. Like the impressionists he is as much concerned with light as with the object being depicted. As lighting continually changes one can make a new painting of the same object again and again according to the clouds and the time of day. He also makes variety by putting different objects in along with the Cottonwood. – first himself, then a number two pencil, and finally a van and prairie dog. The last picture made me laugh because it reminded me of the children's magazine “Highlights,” which used to have a hidden picture in every issue. Children would search for the hidden items in the drawing, and once they popped out they were unmistakable. I had a similar experience with the van and prairie dog. In the blinding and somewhat confusing light they suddenly became clear. Tabatabai is on to something important; nature is filled with hidden secrets, deception and complicated mimicry. Discovering nature's tricks, edible mushrooms that look just like poisonous ones, can constitute little epiphanies.

Cathy Diamond gets to have two of her pictures together, number one and number two in the show, “Yellow Nest” and “Night Vision” and then later in the show “Embrace.” The colors in her works reminded me of Gauguin's Tahiti pictures, and there is something familiar in the theme. To my eye these pictures seem to be exotic. The landscape is unfamiliar but very intriguing. In “Yellow Nest” there are recognizable objects blending into a dark forest. However, this is not Dante's “selva oscura.” The tree contains part of an animal form with long dark claws, there is a leaf and maybe an elephant's head. Nature is different in different parts of the world When we travel from a deciduous forest to a tropical one, we can make amazing discoveries.

One would guess that Sheila Lanham is also a traveler, though one with a simpler style that owes something to design as well as art. Don Doe suggested to me that her “Pine Cone” might have elements of jewelry design in it. A bright stone placed in a setting. I did some research on the word Celestun and up popped reference to a fishing village in Mexico. This painting and “Poppy Field” share a central object with elements that are slightly out of balance. There are bright solid colors in both. All three painting show a basic symmetrical pattern that has individual variation. Almost all living things have this symmetry and yet each individual animal or vegetable has unique characteristics.

Moses Hoskins is yet another artist who reminded me of someone else; in this case it was the author Willa Cather who set her novel “My Antonia” in Nebraska. In one passage she describes the rolling hills. If one removed a few nouns it would be impossible to say whether she is writing about the hills or a woman's body. Indeed, nature creates certain forms on different scales and many have noted the human form is a kind of landscape. Steiglitz took photos of women that left out the face and they became abstract images. Hoskins' three untitled works might be called studies in the human form as landscape. They might be subtitled – prone, sitting, and diptych from the rear.

Our last artist is Cathy Nan Quinlan, and if one had to choose a background influence I would pick the Monet who did the water lilies. In “Profusion” and “An Idle Day” there is a watery background filled in with flowers that happily thrive in the water. In some ways, these pictures, which are so calm and unhurried, are primal. After all they depict something basic to life on earth. Early on there was water and life started in it and then came out of it. There even seems to be a presiding water nymph in “Profusion.” It is a more primal view of what Whittaker-Doe was showing in “Where the Dance Begins.” The contrast in texture between water and flower is a basic one. Quinlan's last picture, “When the Monarch is Looking” has some of the same elements but now they are majestic. Indeed, a wonderful show is going on and one wonders who the Monarch is that the show is for – a butterfly (a being detached from the water)? Some king of nature? Or maybe God himself? Here we see nature in some extraordinary heightened form.

There is much more going on in this exhibit. I have barely scratched the surface of the inter-relations between the painters and their works. An afternoon could be well spent in figuring out each of these artists from just a few works and then looking into what they have to say to each other. If you get the chance, catch this show before it closes on February 10th.

UpdatesJonathan Judge