Rebecca Allan: Landscape as a Devotional Motif

ENVIRONMENTAL PIETY IS A LARGE COMPONENT of contemporary artists’ interest in landscape. Artists announce their state of grace by genuflecting to the forms and ecosystems of the natural world. This displacement of religious impulses onto nature—Mother Mary, dressed in green—is seconded even by the churches. Think of the altar to Gaia in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Or the Vatican’s decision, spearheaded by Cardinal Poupard of the Pontifical Council for Culture, to buy an eco-indulgence for itself by planting trees in Hungary to offset its carbon sins.

The phenomenon calls to mind an overlooked comment made by Kenneth Clark in the introduction to his Landscape Into Art (1949). Clark picks up on Max Friedländer’s 1947 statement on the collapse of the historic order of ranking that placed landscape (together with still life) beneath historical and devotional painting. Clark lends a moral significance to the collapse:

People who have given the matter no thought are apt to assume that the appreciation of natural beauty and the painting of landscape is a normal and enduring part of our spiritual activity. But the truth is that in times when the human spirit seems to have burned most brightly the painting of landscape did not exist and was unthinkable.

It is a startling, even sobering, observation that calls attention to the history of ideas that informs our viewing habits. Implicit in Clark’s comment is a caution against mistaking a parade of pictorial ideas with intellectual history, which is a thing apart.

I am reminded of that distinction by the press release announcing Rebecca Allan’s current exhibition, Chaparral, at 2/20 Gallery. Allan works very much in the tradition of Alan Gussow (1931-1997), who married art to environmental concern. The unspoken impetus for the work is not landscape tradition but a kind of eco-theology that finds the locus of sin in man’s footprint on a botanical Eden.

Like Gussow, Allan takes nature as her primary subject. Like his, her work is a fluid blend of abstraction and representation. Pictorial construction is based on the movement of color, which takes precedence over any insistence on contours:

Rebecca Allan, Fire's Afterimage

Allan was an artist-in-residence at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, in California’s Temecula Valley. Its chaparral is an ecosystem described as “arid and fire-prone, with plants and animals that have adapted to drought conditions.” Her work is presented, rhetorically, as an exploration of “a landscape without water” and a tacit critique of the suburban enclaves and commercial developments that surround Dorland’s wild terrain. As Allan describes it:

We worked amid the scorched shrub-oak trees, native plants . . . rattlesnakes and coyote, even within sight of Temecula’s ubiquitious strip malls and pre-fabricated housing developments with implausible names that obscure local history and suggest radically different “ecosystems” such Vail Ranch, Martinique, and Renaissance Estates.

The disdain is a badge of identity that establishes the artist’s place in the communion of saints. It adds a hint of Calvinist asperity to what is, in reality, an exhuberant exhibition. The dreaded encroachments of ordinary life on a romanticized state of nature are not visible on these color-drenched canvases. Allan’s Chaparral, like previous exhibitions, takes a lively prismatic approach—hardly a critical one—to the motif. Her visual world is a scaffold for expression, for a continuous weft of color and animated brushwork.

Rebecca Allan, Chaparral in Winter

Allan’s painting speaks for itself. It argues beautifully for the act of painting and says little—nothing, really—about the gospel of environmentalism. Chaparral is a lovely show. It does not need bolstering from the pulpit.

©2010 Maureen Mullarkey

1 Comment

  1. Clark’s quote suggests that a secular age turns to landscape when religious themes have run dry. Prescient.

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