by Alex A. Jones
DC MOORE GALLERY | MARCH 23 – APRIL 28, 2018
The rolling hills, perilous cliffs, and epic mountain ranges featured so vividly in Flemish painting of the 15th century constitute otherworldly landscapes. With undulating topographies that sometimes evoke the arid palette of the Mediterranean, and at other times radiate supernaturally green—vistas by masters such as Robert Campin, Rogier Van der Weyden, and Hugo Van der Goes bear little resemblance to the famously flat terrain of the Netherlands. In his artist talk at DC Moore Gallery, Darren Waterston pointed this out to suggest that the origins of the Western landscape genre lie not in observation, but in fantasy or wonder. Working within this tradition of imagination, Waterston’s body of work Ecstatic Landscape presented fabulations of landscape motifs upon a dozen painted panels, mixing pastel and earthen hues into atmospheric abstractions.
Ecstatic Landscape’s art historical premise was no flight of fancy for Waterston, who has employed traditional oil glazing techniques for many years, painting upon panels primed with rabbit-skin gesso. His admiration for Early Renaissance art was made intimately clear in this exhibition, which included an anteroom containing antiquarian prints from the artist’s own collection, with examples by Lucas van Leyden, Rembrandt, and Dürer hung alongside small paintings and watercolor studies of Waterston’s own hand. This presentation of the artist’s influences was captivating, and also directly invited an evaluation of his work as a response to the art historical material to which he cleaves so tightly.
It feels important to confess that, like Waterston, I, too, catch my breath ecstatically in front of Flemish paintings of the 15th century. Many aesthetic pleasures persist in these 500-year-old works, but for me the magic is in their peculiar sense of space. The invention of linear perspective, which privileged the embodied position of a singular viewer, had not fully caught on in the early Renaissance, especially in the Low Countries far north of Florence; however, the technologies of oil painting had become sophisticated enough to allow artists to render any object in lifelike detail. Thus, in Campin, Altdorfer, and Van Eyck, the mountain peaks of the far horizon are as gorgeously articulated as the close-up gloss upon Christ’s carmine lips, as if seen through the all-perceiving eyes of God. The landscapes of such paintings, sometimes glimpsed only through the arch of an interior window, appear to push forward in telescopic detail. It is an omniscient—or divine—sense of perspective, one which gave aesthetic form to its Christian context in much the same way that Giacometti’s starved and haunted figures gave form to war-ravaged Europe of the mid-20th century.
Waterston’s paintings could never achieve the infinite depth of field found in Flemish masterpieces—nor, surely, does he expect them to. No one paints like that anymore because we just don’t see that way anymore. Human vision in the contemporary, scientific age has been deeply etched with the mechanics of linear perspective, just as painting today exists within the deconstructive traditions of Modernism. Though Waterston uses historical techniques, he attempts to bring landscapes into the present, forging a distilled, abstracted version of their pleasures. In some cases, this meant merely turning recognizable features of landscape (clouds, sky, mountains) into an interchangeable vocabulary of graphic elements mixed with non-representational patterning. Such works possess a distinctly postmodern affect, one that feels somewhat irrelevant. A number of the smaller panels in particular, such as Lapis (2017), are essentially collages of speckles, moiré, billows, and color bursts that seem to have little to do with the landscape genre, and instead express an interest in surface quality characteristic of modern gestural abstraction.
Waterston’s paintings succeed where they skew more representational, and several are especially strong. The eight-foot-high panel The Ridge (2017) shows a mountainous, rocky, and rather foreboding landscape under crepuscular light; decadent velvet-blue at the top of the canvas fades to pale dawn-peach at its horizon, and igneous-looking hillocks undulate below like striped serpents. A similar sense of biomorphism was present in another, much smaller, painting called Abundance (2017)—perhaps the highlight of the group—in which a hot-pink object resembling the blooming innards of a mollusk casts an imposing shadow upon a greenish-brown terrain. The fleshy morphologies in these two paintings arrive at a novel, compelling zone in between traditional and contemporary sensibilities, speaking to a timeless interest in the ways paint evokes the visceral textures of the body, while also paying specific homage to the oil glazing technique that distinguishes Waterston’s practice. (At the time of its invention, oil glazing was celebrated precisely for the miraculous way it replicated the luminescence of Caucasian skin.) The artist’s use of gradients—especially in the hills of The Ridge, which have been pulled smoothly across the surface with a knife—recall both the supple blending of color in Renaissance landscape and the pervasive fascination with digital color-fades in contemporary painting and design.
A delightfully unstable figure-ground relationship exists between the mysterious pink form and the terrain in Abundance, such that I was caught between imagining this object at its painted scale—around the size of a melon—and as a surreal entity the size of a mountain, as it appears to be in relation to the hills that surround it and the miniscule trees painted hazily into the picture’s middle ground. Another of the largest works, Locus no. 1 (2017), which alternates between conjuring clouds and foaming waves, has no central “figure” to speak of but achieves a depth of space that seemed cosmic and open-ended. These paintings invited the joy that is particular to landscapes, allowing us to experience the panel not as a mere decorated surface, but as an imagined place.
ContributorAlex A. Jones
ALEX A. JONES is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.