Landscape Lenses

by Emily Adams (MFA 2011)
Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #92 (1976)
Nearing the end of the fall semester, theses are being written and paintings are being refined for December’s mid-year mark. Last year, Sir Kenneth Clark’s The Nude was a required reading by this time. To be honest, I wasn’t so terribly thrilled about the book, but I recently finished his chronicle of Western landscape painting in Landscape into Art. In the book, he devises categories for ways in which landscape has functioned in painting over time, from medieval symbol to Renaissance fact to expressions of empirical naturalism and human emotions to a parallel to the act of painting itself (twentieth century cubism and abstraction). I can’t help but reread Clark’s book with an eye on locating the place of the human figure in all of his examples, and then look around at contemporary American painters for whom ‘landscape’ is a significant subject. Where is the human figure in contemporary American landscape? Could it still be high up in a building or flying machine? Or perhaps it has moved on to be present in the very fact of its absence?

Mark Tansey, EC101 (2009) oil on canvas
Clayton Merrill, Falling (2002)
April Gornik writes that her work is of ‘unpeopled landscapes’ ( While Anselm Kiefer’s latest work continues to allude to the social history of his native Germany through the absence of the human in charred landscapes, and David Hockney has retired to British pastoral life with an LA tang, many American landscapes seem to hold on to a more Romantic view of ‘nature’ as somehow both inseparable from yet bigger than individual or collective human activity. Many seem to be 'unpeopled,' but the people are still hidden within image, implied by the perspective taken, or implicated in the artist's process itself.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Desert), (1971) Lithograph
As I gather together my work from the semester, I'm beginning to realize that the absence of the human figure is at the heart of where I'm going. I've been trying to incorporate still-life and landscape to make paintings that are essentially about humans, without humans. In the meantime, I will continue to compile and analyze my list of contemporary-American-unpeopled-landscape-paintings. Studio work updates coming soon...

1 comment:

  1. these guys painted nice landscapes