Looking up: Laura Wooten’s ‘View from the Ridge’ offers 99 visions of hope

“Ochre Stillness” is one of 99 different paintings of the same “View from the Ridge” by Laura Wooten. Courtesy of the artist “Ochre Stillness” is one of 99 different paintings of the same “View from the Ridge” by Laura Wooten. Courtesy of the artist

She paints the same view day after day, recording the subtle and great changes of hour, season, and weather. Her subject is both profoundly familiar to her and constantly changing. Laura Wooten’s “View from the Ridge” at Second Street Gallery features 90 small paintings (8 inches x 8 inches) and nine larger works (30 inches x 30 inches), all depicting the same stretch of land just outside of town. Painted over the course of 2019, the images are devotionals to nature, inspired by the daily walks Wooten takes with her dog.

Wooten’s mentor, Stanley Lewis, with whom she studied in the 1990s, first at the Chautauqua summer program and then the MFA program at American University, once said something that has resonated with her ever since: “It is possible to find yourself in the painting, a part of yourself that you didn’t know before.”

“This opened me up to the idea of both looking outward and looking inward through the painting process,” says Wooten. “Even within the context of observational plein-air painting, there was the possibility of exploring an inner world. This became a guiding idea in my work for the next 26 years.” To ensure she maintains this quality and prevents the work from becoming too literal, Wooten rarely does preliminary sketches, reconstructing what she’s seen from memory back in the studio.

According to Wooten, the smaller landscapes are “perhaps equal parts looking out and looking inward. The impetus for the series was an enthrallment with the color, light, and atmosphere of the place, but the series continued to develop with an awareness that the landscape is being seen through the emotional lens of the self.”

“View from the Ridge” Nos. 1 and 2 provide a good set-up for what is to come. All the elements of the landscape are distinctly visible. The road bends down through fir trees on the left and a striking birch on the right to where the land opens up to an expanse of meadow. On the far side, wooded hills lead to mountains in the distance. This is the vista that we will see again and again, transforming before our eyes through Wooten’s brush. These two paintings capture the palette of early winter in the Piedmont and also the quality of light—brilliant sunlight in “No. 1” and a more muted version in “No. 2.” They are so evocative that we almost don’t notice the sophisticated brushwork with which they are rendered.

As you proceed around the room, following the seasons of the year, you notice something different about the larger works. In these paintings, created in 2020, the view has “become a stage set,” Wooten says, “an empty tableau upon which to project the imaginings of an inner world.”

In “Tundra,” the meadow, now sheathed in ice, is composed of a series of brittle, horizontal lines with the hills beyond, a rich mélange of paint that’s daubed, smeared, and scraped across the panel. Wooten uses the same horizontal brushstrokes again in the meadow and also the road in “Great Flood, 2020,” a painting that seems to loosen its ties to reality and venture into the expressionistic territory of Emil Nolde. The landscape is still there, but it functions as scaffolding for the remarkable technical effects. As you look at the work, linger on the hills wreathed in vaporous clouds. Here, Wooten applies light blue, yellow, and lavender pigment and then scrapes it off using a spatula-like tool to create topographical features, vegetation, and reflections of light. Infused with golden radiance, another painting, “Meadow Music,” is the summertime counterpart of this work.

In “View from the Ridge No. 34” the horizontal lines of the meadow are replaced by cloud-like blobs of paint that provide a softer effect. We can almost feel the wind that’s ruffling the grasses and producing the blousy, verdant mounds.

“View from the Ridge No. 57” calls to mind the wonderful pre-abstract paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, with their flattened field of view. The mottled, tawny field contrasts with the blurry yellow-green hills beyond. In the foreground, the road has become just a purple suggestion.

“Carnival, 2020” captures the explosion of color that is high fall. Bold splotches of yellow and orange describe the tree foliage. The slick indigo of the road dappled with yellow smears suggests it has just rained. Green again after the summer heat, the meadow now provides a calm foil to the foreground tree and the riot of color forming the hills on the far side.

Wooten clearly revels in the act of painting and in paint itself, finding in it a means to imbue her work with a deep sensuality and expressive resonance. “I think of each color palette as holding a distinct emotional tone,” she says. “While loving those glorious sharp-shadowed sunny days, I learned to embrace the foggy and gray, those mysterious neutral colors without names. This became a metaphor for being willing and open to examine all parts of myself, with nothing to fear and nothing to hide. Each day was a gift, whatever the view presented, and whatever emotions might come up.”

Wooten also uses brushes, knives, and scrapers to mark her painted surface, giving the pieces a texture and offering another opportunity for expression. “Through addition and subtraction, obscuring and revealing a clear cut shape or a blurred edge, I am exploring the emotional possibilities of the outer and the inner landscape,” she says. “It’s not something I could sketch ahead of time, but something I discover through the process of painting.”

Of “View from the Ridge,” Wooten says, “I made 99 paintings of the same landscape, a place I visit every day, and also 99 paintings of places in myself that I didn’t know before.”

Laura Wooten’s “View from the Ridge” is on view by appointment at Second Street Gallery through January 22.

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