Tibor De Nagy Gallery
One of the great challenges of painting the landscape is overcoming one’s romantic response to it. This is just what much of the Hudson River School failed to do. In their work, the artist’s emotional response to the natural world replaces a true feeling of nature, of the world as it is. Strong landscape painters avoid this fate by coming to grips with history, examining its products and learning from them. Fairfield Porter did so and produced powerful landscapes at a time when many of his influential peers were veering towards abstraction. Alex Katz and Neil Welliver did likewise. The entire history of Chinese landscape painting seems dedicated to this same unsentimental exploration of nature. Robert Berlind’s current exhibition at Tibor de Nagy gallery brings one into contact with this latter tradition of the landscape.
Any tradition in painting should never be considered in isolation from other traditions. All painting shares a common root and one feels this with Berlind. His “Fence, Trees, Raindrops” (2002) seems to push out tentatively toward the boundaries of abstraction. Painted in chromatic grays, it is composed of a set of vertical bands stretching the length of a horizontal canvas over which the traces of raindrops in water are painted wet-in-wet. This, in addition to the suggestion of leaves at the painting’s upper margin, is all we’re allowed to identify it as an image of a fence reflected in water. One feels, looking at the piece, how little it takes to suggest an image. We are given not only the thing seen, but the encouragement to meditate on the experience of seeing that often accompanies good abstraction.
Berlind possesses the essential attribute of restlessness in his use of paint. The contrary temptation is more common in art: find a technique and stick with it. This path leads to academicism, a means of avoiding the uncertainty of creativity by relying on a technique that has worked in the past. Two small paintings from 2004, “September Sycamore” and “Bare Saplings,” reveal Berlind resisting this temptation. “September Sycamore” is a mass of roiling impasto. The thick paint stands in for the rough bark. “Bare Saplings” is thinly painted, an exercise in qualities of light achieved through translucency of paint. These two small paintings reveal as much of paint’s potential for evoking discrete substances as they do of Berlind’s willingness to use it so.
Berlind’s painting, like all good landscape painting, makes use of what is there, unadorned, to produce its effect. There is no posing of the sitter and no arranging of objects on a table. There is only what’s presented to the eye and the mind’s handling of it for the hand. That Berlind squeezes so much from these generally unnoticed puddles, trees, and fields is clear evidence of his devotion to the natural landscape. By means of his relentless creativity in expressing his fidelity, he introduces us to what is finest about painting—its revelation of just how personal seeing is. We’ve all seen the things Berlind paints. By seeing how uniquely he sees them, we are made to grasp our own potential for seeing things anew. At the risk of slipping into sentimentality myself, I would also say that there is an ethical lesson to be gleaned from Berlind’s approach to the natural landscape. If we all saw it with the urgency with which he sees it, it might receive our increased respect.
ContributorBen La Rocco