by Hearne Pardee
As I Went Walking
SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO | OCTOBER 19 – NOVEMBER 22, 2017
In a 2014 interview, Josephine Halvorson resisted being categorized as a painter and suggested that her work shared in the “medium of land art.” While an artist might work with the material of paint for a variety of artistic purposes, the implications of what she means by the medium of land art play out in the works in this exhibition. The show’s title is drawn from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and it raises questions about belonging that extend back to Alfred Stieglitz’s insistence on the “local” in American art. Working outdoors near her home in Massachusetts, Halvorson avoids making conventional landscape tableaux and engages instead with a landscape’s boundaries such as signs posted with restrictions of access, fence posts, and images of roadside debris.
As though in response to Stieglitz, who criticized American artists’ puritanical detachment from their surroundings, Halvorson uses painting on site to define where she is and what terrain she can claim (the artist reports in an interview that she feels self-conscious standing on the boundary of her neighbor’s property to paint.) While her earlier paintings consisted mainly of close-up renderings of man-made surfaces, her concern here is with measurement. Her 2016 installation at Storm King featured a 36-foot painted ruler and a vertical sundial. A silk-screened reproduction of that ruler is printed on the upper edge of each “broadsheet” in this show—a series of seven gouaches on paper.
Like Halvorson’s earlier works, these are also poised on the boundary between illusionistic, depicted space and the material surface of the picture plane. Earlier critics have compared her to Jasper Johns and Donald Judd, as though to emphasize the painted surface and downplay issues of representation. Yet Halvorson’s paintings have always been haunted by the historical resonance of their subjects, to which these new works add associations with the body, like the pinkish, peeling bark of Birch Skin (2017). That subject fills the entire frame, but in her paintings of signs, Halvorson includes more background information. Rumpled and torn, the signs are not coextensive with the picture surface, but situated deeper in space, in interaction with the trees to which they’re affixed. Painting these signs lends material weight to language while undercutting its claim to authority.
In oils like Juncture (2017) or Fallen Fence Post (2017), Halvorson brings impressive organizational intelligence to bear on incidental arrangements of leaf debris and branches. Reduced to a constantly varied harmony of warmer and cooler browns, these backgrounds offset the interventions of bolder colored plastic ribbons. In the Broadsheets, where gouache lends each mark and color more graphic identity than the blended substance of oils, the background generates more improvisational energy. Looking down upon a small expanse of a roadside, Broadsheet (Ground) (2017) exemplifies the visual richness and immediacy of these works, in which personalized abstract forms emerge from a confetti-like accumulation of leaves and pebbles.
Halvorson’s comment about the “medium” of land art reflects an understanding that paintings are not just mirrors of nature but tools. She gives us the feel of objects not so much through exceptional visual acuity as from a cultivation of attention that rewards our participation in observation. These are not objectified surfaces, but sensitive templates for reflection. At a time when regionalism is freighted with the sinister political implications of isolationism, Halvorson carves out shared spaces in a contested landscape.
Hearne Pardee is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.