Where Canvas Meets Spirit Of Place

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PROPPED up against my computer is a print of a painting called "July Evening, Lake Tamarack, Millbrook" (1983). It has an Old Master look of quality - first-rate technique, subdued but rich color, and fanatical realism touched by grace. The lake reflects the "S" curve of the hill and the sky overhead with such refinement that it looks as if it could have been painted in the 17th century, but there is something peculiarly contemporary about it, too.

The painter, Joellyn Duesberry, is well grounded in the work of Dutch and Flemish atmospheric landscape painting. She worked for over 20 years as a fine-arts appraiser, handling great works of art, including the work of Dutch and Flemish masters.

She became an appraiser as a means to support herself while she pursued her real vocation as an artist. She knew at a very young age that art would be her life. But the 1950s was no time for a Virginia belle to take up art. While she believed art history would be a great support to her own artistic endeavors as well as a decent livelihood, there was a hazard: She might find herself intimidated by the great achievements of the past.

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"And of course I did feel those emotions," she says as we sit in the Denver Art Museum, looking at a current show of her paintings. "So I set about increasing that knowledge, rather than avoiding it. I actually tried to acquire a survey of occidental art - cutting across centuries... .

"It was daunting to come home and think I had anything further to say. And that's where my resolution about what to tackle started forming. That is, I secretly nourished the notion that I had something to add to an ancient tradition - having not the faintest notion of what that would be," she says.

She had started out as an abstract painter but switched gears abruptly as she emerged from a health crisis at 25, determined to paint the natural world - "nothing unknowable, surreal, or frightening. Nothing unworldly as the abstract world had been for me - noisy, intimate forms that had no relation to anything else I knew." She realized she wanted to explore her relationship to nature and to the past.

Painting from nature was passe in the late 1960s and '70s. This decision meant a peripheral, pariah existence in the art world. But she didn't care. She was willing to accept the outsider status because she saw how a consciousness of quality was slipping from the upcoming generation and from art criticism.

Then in 1977 on a 30-day hike in the high Andes of Peru, Duesberry saw Machu Picchu at sunrise, and it turned her into a landscape painter. "I suddenly realized how vast this planet was. There were no trees - brilliant purple hills and blue veins of copper and glaciers melting into green pools." When she returned home she would go off on retreats for months at a time to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket islands, and to the Hudson River where she lived in an orchard in a 17th-century farmhouse. She painted that orchard in every season.

For Duesberry, 1985 was an important year. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant large enough to enable her to quit her job and devote herself to painting full time. She married and moved west, and later the same year had the opportunity to study with Richard Diebenkorn at the Santa Fe Institute. That was a great experience, she says, because not only was he extraordinarily generous with his gifts, but he gave her confidence. "He saw that the bones of what I did was much more important tha n the pleasing skin."

She shows me one of the paintings she did for him that summer and points out how the problems of composition are the same as they would be for an abstract painting. Diebenkorn told her she had good "mental furniture." He told her to ask herself always what was the reason she was painting a piece and what in the structure was so appealing.

"All of a sudden he gave me justification for habits I'd already formed: One, that I return again and again to the same place; two, that I have much more faith in the broad first movements of my brush than in the hours I finish a painting; and three, the problems of making paintings as designs on two-dimensional surfaces are absolutely the same whether you are an abstract painter or a landscape painter or a portrait painter, it's all the same thing."

If she had a table with some bread, lemons, and a bottle, she explains, she would be dealing with the same problem of fitting those objects into a panoramic space and making it interesting: how to make the eye jump back and forth, make the eye wish to revisit the space between the lemon and the bottle (in a still life) or between the church and the tree (in landscape). If the painting were abstract, she would find the same challenge in nonreferential forms.

Duesberry's sense of place strikes me as flawless - she captures the light of Maine and the colors of that landscape exactly, just as she does the perfect white light of Colorado in her garden-scapes. Her work has been compared to Constable and Corot. I see signs of Cezanne in some of the work from the '70s and early '80s. But she is finding new expression that cannot be defined by art historical references.

I am drawn first and foremost to her Southwestern landscapes. Many artists have painted the inexhaustible beauty of this arid country. Duesberry brings something new and fresh to it, a penetrating involvement with it that is deeply personal yet instantly recognizable as true to the environment, unmistakably right and authentic to place. Some of these paintings are tantalizingly close to abstraction: Duesberry is coming full circle.

"I know that the rural setting in which I grew up offered the most extraordinary range of special motifs for my mental life - it's as if I fled to the woods and the creeks and the hills just as a source of renewal. I was just stunned by the seasons and found them worthy of the most minute attention."

She points to a small picture "The Highest Tide of June, Maine" and tells me it is her favorite small piece in the show. It took her 10 minutes or 48 years to complete, depending on how you look at it. She stood on one particular square foot of land on a narrow beach; she even fell in the water doing this picture. But no other place on this bank galvanized her attention so. The piece is all dashes of paint, quickly applied. It is beautiful, lively, evocative of the spirit of place. And it is only barely referential - almost abstract.

When she works in monotypes - slapping down ink with large brushes or roller on a lucite board and then pressing paper to it to form a single print - she is engaged in distilling the forms and structures of nature, exaggerating the bare compositional elements that attracted her to the scene in the first place. She must rely on gesture and emotion just as she did when she worked in abstract terms. It is clear to her that she is trying to reclaim those abstract beginnings.

"I'm pushing more and more into a language of expressing what Diebenkorn called `mental furniture.' I'm using the landscape as a means and not an end.... When I put a mark down it will beget the mark next to it - and that's what process is to me."

So she has moved from abstraction to realism and now perhaps back to abstraction. Two triptychs in the show, while wholly referential, do play with time, space, and viewpoint in original ways. In "South Platte River Near Denver, September, October, November" she moves through the autumn months in one panorama (each section of the triptych represents another month of the year), all unified by the river. The light gets stronger moving toward November because there is less foliage to obscure the light or fi ll it with shadows. Yet it reads as one piece.

In "Spring on the South Platte River, Colorado," the artist flattens space, tilts the two end sections of the triptych up slightly and brings the viewer closer. "This flattening is a way of dealing with the pictorial as opposed to the picturesque," she says.

Duesberry imparts a soft texture to color and form that luxuriously draws the viewer back into the landscape. She brings to many of these paintings a feeling of soft depth - as if she were looking through still liquid or into the reflection of a mirror at the landscape. Color makes depth in her work, and light seems to beam out of her very shadows to illumine the linen on which she paints. This is the West I know, though I have never seen the same sites.

She is a plein air artist, utterly dependent on site. But where once she spent hours in the out-of-doors, now she prefers to work more quickly, counting on the concentration of the first idea, sometimes finishing the piece later. The abstract painters she encountered in the '60s wanted her to throw emotion at the canvas in pure expression because realism was out.

"But how can an 18-year-old express what she feels? How can this end but in exhausted imagery? Whereas nature is constantly provocative to me. Viscosity, hard/soft, deep space, shallow/depth, two-dimensional design - in all of these tensions, that's where I locate my enthusiasms.

"What is the attraction of delving into formal considerations as opposed to picturesque considerations? I would say that by maintaining an unblinkered awareness of the ideas I get just standing and pushing a brush around in front of a burnt meadow - that black stripe in that lovely landscape is such a shock - just by being aware of what's going to come up to the surface of my thinking, I'm going to make a unique picture. It may not be a great work of art, but it will be unique.

"I firmly believe that all I have to offer is the unique sum of experience that I as an individual have to bring to painting."

"Joellyn Duesberry: Landscapes 1972-1992" will be on view until Jan. 10, 1993, at the Denver Art Museum.

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