Creating rural art that gets intimate with earthly things a long ways out of cities or suburbs is a challenge in terms of connecting with the viewing audience. We are an urbanizing society--at least till we run up against limits to the basic resources we need for new infrastructure, like sources of fresh water and a variety of raw minerals--or till the climate that sustains us is overthrown. The specialized wild plants known to trail hikers or wild gardeners as trademarks of a place are, to most everyone else, aliens, for which roses, tulips, irises, daisies, pansies and other cultivated flowers good for symbolizing an occasion or classic environment are comfortable substitutes. If I'm painting puccoons on a swath of prairie or the fringed polygala on a clifftop behind Lake Superior I'm in some other emotional territory ill-synchronized with the urban masses at their typical motorized pace.
The same is true for paintings that include birds, native small reptiles or burrowing mammals--a person familiar with these must habitually venture off roads and trails, looking down, listening, eyes trained to detect slight movement.
And what about landscape? It is one of the best-selling genres of art, but in order to sell, I suspect, it has to beckon the beholder out of the world of the body and into the picture with inviting aspects all its own. For cityscapes no doubt the same is true. Of all the top-selling landscape art there are popular categories, domestic scenery or places--coasts and mountains chief among them--where people trapped in their responsibilities long to go and maybe lose themselves. But just as the earth has places that repel entry by the bulk of our own kind, the mind has analogous realms; compare earth's coldest or sultriest, entangled places with hardly a safe foothold or channel for much other passage and the mind's regions of poorly-illumined or outright horrifying thought. What is the appeal of landscape art (or seascape) that touches on these states of mind for many viewers?
Since abstract art depicting nightmare visions has a following and a market, I wonder how that market compares with any for lifelike landscapes, true to a real region, that reveal an interplay of loneliness or desolation between artist, subject and public.
Does landscape art that seems as if it has little allowance in it for human comforts, however sunlit and balmy-seeming, dissuade most buyers? Maybe or maybe not. But some part of it has to be familiar; I think of the heavily-photographed wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park or the lands along the Trans-Canada Highway. Below are two mixed-media watercolor landscapes that speak of U.S./Canadian peat bogs or similar wetlands, areas of little economic use and forbidding mud, cold and mosquitoes, that never-the-less address a yearning for places empty of human conflict, where nothing stops the wind or interferes with nature's regenerative cycles, where wild animal sightings tempt those who would be tempted. Both are on display this two-week run at Vine Arts Center in Minneapolis.
Freshet from a Ghost-marsh - watercolor, pencil, 15 x 22.5"
God All Shape & Conduct: Shoreless - watercolor and gouache, 22 x 30"
The above work is recent, the bottom one dates to the 1990s and bears, embedded within the art in small black hand-print, a lyrical chant about discerning good or cosmic creative force apart from evil, the destructive. Both pieces speak to a type of soul, I think, that embraces the whole earth with special affection for those mid-continent places that have been called wastelands, barrens or 'Great American Desert.' Not much changes on a vast scale in those places and so they have an epic quality with soothing overtones.
Here where I'm sitting, the sun just burst out of the gloomy grandeur of horizon-to-horizon clouds and I feel pulled outside for a brisk walk along the roads which have become mud and little else.
I'm at work lately on the mixed-media watercolor, shown below, in which a city wraps around the back of a boggy foreground true to my home area, eerie in all the browns, reds and bone coloration of the off season, traced with the ghosts of little-recorded goings-on over eons past. In the process of composing it I've considered the grip of landscape on ourselves and how to define differences, all told, between three types: the urban-rustic, the bucolic semi-rural, and places still reminiscent of wilderness, which reveal little to no human impact. A day outdoors in any of these settings can offer all the same degree of engrossment and serenity.What the most open of lands offer, especially those that call up visions of the original wilderness and still harbor big carnivores like wolves and cougars, is the illusion of being singular, a favored part of nature, a lordling at the top of the whole obvious food chain. A person savoring all the privacy the intensely rural region allows may often weigh personal loneliness against a sense of enchantment by all the inhuman things that fill the senses. Evidence of the electronic surveillance that pervades our culture is out of sight, out of mind to a degree not true in built-up places. Since the remnant of other mammals we have decimated have, in their considerable intelligence, learned to avoid our awareness the person in the country is left seeking out evidence of them, and their stories cut off amid the detritus of trees and the suggestiveness of empty nests, burrows, tangles and rock piles. We begin to understand a preoccupation with ghosts as a network that shaped and still characterizes this place we live in.
But experienced in the city, these completed works of art may just send a two-fold message: of anachronism, but also of living, transferrable potential for what lives among us, if balances between live things, human and non-human, are ultimately to be achieved.
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