Out in the sun and the wind

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TODAY'S landscape painting tends to be cool, crisp, and detached, more concerned with topographical and atmospheric accuracy than with its ability to convey mood or emotion. Some younger painters may utilize landscape as an expressive vehicle, but mostly for formal or purely idiosyncratic reasons. The expression of a passionate or deeply empathetic involvement with mountains, trees, the sky, fields -- whatever -- is not fashionable in art today, and those few artists who are so involved generally aren't receiving the attention they deserve.

It's acceptable, of course, to respond enthusiastically to the romantic scenic views of the Hudson River School and to the dramatic landscapes and seascapes of such historical figures as Ruisdael, Turner, Friedrich, Ryder, or van Gogh. But anything similar in mood and closer to our own time is mildly suspect -- whether it be something as celebratory as the watercolors of Charles Burch-field or as self-contained and brooding as the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.

The closest we come to accepting this kind of approach is in work that distills or transforms nature's qualities and moods into forms bearing little or no resemblance to their sources.

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Some of the original Abstract Expressionists, for instance, as well as such slightly later painters as Helen Frank-enthaler and Morris Louis, evoke much the same feeling at times as we receive from the expansive 19th-century landscapes of Thomas Cole and Frederick Church. The same is true of the recent canvases of Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Natkin, Tino Zago, and Louisa Chase -- as well as the light-works of James Turrell.

In every case, light, spaciousness, and a radiant, occasionally even an exultant mood help make the artist's point -- as they once did for the majority of American landscape painters. Even as recently as the 1930s and early '40s, the grandeur and sweep of the great outdoors was a commonly accepted theme, and no national or regional exhibition was complete without its dozen or so emotionally charged depictions of forests, mountains, or wide-open spaces.

All that began to change, however, as Abstract Expressionism gained momentum after World War II and then ended rather precipitously when Pop Art and Photo-Realism took command. Even the advent of such talented landscapists as Fairfield Porter and Neil Welliver did little to change the situation, since both took a strong stand against sentiment and emotionalism in art and made their reputations as advocates of a more calculated approach to landscape painting.

Not everyone followed their example, of course, although those who didn't generally found themselves sidelined or ignored. Things began to loosen up a bit by the mid-1970s, however, thanks largely to the art world's increasing tolerance of non-modernist styles and procedures, and to the decision by a number of younger artists to paint only what they saw and felt regardless of dogma or theory.

Interestingly enough, only a small minority put the emphasis on what they felt rather than on what they saw, and even fewer committed themselves to striking a balance between emotion and observation. Among the latter was Jessie Benton-Evans Gray, a painter of large, bold, highly subjective landscape images that were painted in the field and that always represented a particular place and time.

As a matter of fact, to describe her pictures as large and boldly painted is to understate the case -- as anyone who has seen her working on an 8-foot-wide canvas attached to her van for support can testify. Even van Gogh, were he painting nearby, would have been surprised at the breadth and directness of her execution and would have wandered over to take a closer look. What he saw might or might not have impressed him -- but he almost certainly would have approved of her manner of working and of her passionate response to the landscape that lay before her.

And passionate it is, what with her swirling brushwork, churning skies, sweeping, low-lying horizons, and hearty daubs of paint that become trees, hills, buildings, and forests if viewed from the proper distance. The result, depending on one's point of view, is art that is visionary, ecstatic, ominous, highly romantic -- or, possibly, even a combination of all the above.

What it is not is dull and like everyone else's. Even someone wishing to criticize her work has to admit that it's totally hers. And why shouldn't it be? It comes from deep within her, reflects her own profoundly personal view of life and the world around her, and was brought into being only after years of dedication and hard work.

It is also somewhat unusual in that it is painted outdoors, often under difficult weather conditions, and in direct confrontation with the view that inspired it. An artist's only recourse in a situation like that is to get right to the point and be as honest and effective as possible. There is no time for ration-alizing or theorizing. Nature demands that the artist pay close attention, and that he or she enter into deep and challenging dialogue with it.

But then, that's exactly what an artist like Jessie Benton-Evans Gray wants and why she is painting out in the sun and wind in the first place.

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