Land here now: Les Yeux du Monde challenges traditions of landscape art

Anne Chesnut’s collage is included in Les Yeux du Monde’s “Landscape Re-Imagined,” an exhibition of 27 local artists offering perspectives on the lay of the land through August 11. Courtesy of the artist. Anne Chesnut’s collage is included in Les Yeux du Monde’s “Landscape Re-Imagined,” an exhibition of 27 local artists offering perspectives on the lay of the land through August 11. Courtesy of the artist.

In the Anthropocene, what does it mean to paint the landscape? Pristine, unspoiled wilderness no longer exists (even places that look “untouched” are affected by climate change),  and we’ve learned to cast a suspicious eye at bucolic pastoral zones, now that we know how often they involve Roundup runoff and soil erosion. This isn’t meant to harsh anyone’s plein-air buzz; it’s just reality, and one that Lyn Bolen Warren, director of Les Yeux du Monde, readily acknowledges.

“It’s just such a crucial time now for the Earth,” she says. “It’s disappearing in the way we knew it before.”

When she found herself putting together a group landscape show to hang at Les Yeux this summer, she titled it “Landscape Re-Imagined”—a nod to the genre’s weighty history as well as to the urgent need for humans, whether artists or not, to reframe our view of the planet.

The show, which includes work by 38 artists, surveys many different conceptions of landscape. There’s land itself, and then there’s landscape—an artifact of a distinctly human endeavor, one that does rest on imagining, a la Warren’s title. When we picture the land, we’re making choices to see it in a certain way, and a show with this kind of range invites us to step back and ask the meta-questions.

Take, for example, the difference between Priscilla Long Whitlock’s canvas “Reflections, Mirrored Marks,” and Isabelle Abbot’s “Spring Fling.” The first seems to immerse the viewer in a body of water—as though our heads were just above the surface, gazing through Whitlock’s suggestive brushstrokes in space—and the second positions us at some high viewpoint, the sea a distant band of blue. These are not just different places to stand; they imply different ways of being, one as an intimate of the land, one as its commander and surveyor.

Yet as we move through the show, an even deeper sense of possibility emerges. The simple act of including houses in a “landscape” painting, as in Ann Lyne’s “The Smiths, Lexington, VA,” reminds us that even in town, nature is present. To take this a step further, we might ask whether our dwellings are part of nature just like bird’s nests and anthills. If that seems obvious (on the one hand) or simplistic (on the other), consider all the contexts in which wilderness images are still de rigueur. There is a certain view of nature as not-human to which we remain firmly attached.

There are material choices, too, that push the traditional boundaries of landscape art. Molly Herman’s piece is subtly sculptural, with woven fabrics incorporated onto its painted surface. Just barely 3D, the piece—at least in the context of this show—invites us to reflect on our habitual conversion of land, which has depth and surrounds us, to a flat representation that we regard as separate.

Dorothy Robinson’s “Full House” takes the legacy of, say, van Gogh and refracts it into a postmodern space where floral fragments are adulterated by abstract sweeps of color and brushwork. Accustomed to single-point perspective, our eyes may find Robinson’s realm disordered, but in truth it’s a realist depiction of how any landscape artwork is a fiction of sorts, an impermanent gambit—someone’s mind and eye at work. Anne Chesnut’s quilt-like multimedia collage of images gathered on a drive between Crozet and White Hall is another kind of personal landscape view: the eye that’s an I.

Importantly, the works of David Hawkins and Richard Crozier focus on the built (and in Crozier’s case, the post-industrial) environment. Carefully representing streets, buildings, vehicles—and including such images in a landscape show—might be one of the deepest ways to re-imagine inherited ideas about how we picture land. After all, if we insist only on all-natural beauty, we’ll ignore most of what the world offers to our seeing.

The scraped, paved site in Crozier’s piece, “Monticello Dairy Demolition,” shares some DNA with the sculpture outside by UVA Aunspaugh fellow Charles Lambert: a concrete-and-rebar form that hovers between rubble and transcendence. Titled “Quiet,” it’s made of materials we tend to completely disregard. Yet here it is, inviting us to stand and be present with it and the dizzy view from the Les Yeux lawn.

It’s entirely appropriate that this landscape show has an outdoor sculpture component. One emerges from the building and engages, via many senses, the place that had been framed by its large windows. And in these outdoor works, human beings appear—the figures that, in the paintings indoors, had been only implied.

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