In competition with nature

There are many excellent artists today who go about their business as though modernism didn't exist. Many of them paint the great outdoors. They are the painters whose primary frame of reference is the world around them. For them art is almost entirely a matter of transcribing what they see into paint. Their interest in formal or technical matters is generally limited to achieving pictorial ''accuracy,'' and to acquiring a technique that will sensitively depict the subjects that interest them without calling undue attention to itself.

The final judge and ultimate critic of their work is nature itself. Their concern is in how faithfully they represent it, not in how faithfully they represent a formal ideal or in how profoundly they can affect the course of art history.

By and large, they are a modest lot, with modest goals and ambitions. But then, that's understandable, considering how awe inspiring and challenging nature can be, and how humbling an experience it is to sit down before it with canvas, brushes, and a few tubes of paint.

No matter how hard such an artist tries to match nature in paint, however, nature is always richer, more subtle, and more magnificent than it had appeared at first. Things taken for granted suddenly become almost impossible to grasp in linear or painterly terms. Technical tricks and formal devices so proudly acquired in art school quickly prove shallow and inadequate in front of an actual grove of trees, fields of grass, foliage, or clouds floating in the sky. Such apparently simple things as sketching a tree or painting wet moss on a stump suddenly become highly complicated procedures as the eye takes in the fact that they aren't isolated phenomena but are actually profoundly interconnected with everything else in view.

No wonder such an artist is humble before nature. Nature is the ultimate source of inspiration, and it sets the ultimate critical standards. Such an artist is more in competition with nature than with other artists, most particularly those whose values and ideals are determined almost exclusively by what they see in museums, galleries, and art magazines.

This is difficult for many urban artists and critics to understand. Art for them is a matter of cultural dialogue and continuity, challenges and adherences to tradition, formal ideals, and structural and thematic probings. The idea that art should be totally dependent upon the appearances of nature is a difficult one for them to accept.

Stated that way, it is difficult for me as well. Such total dependence smacks more of mimicry and imitation than of art. Before I can accept a painting as art , I need to sense something of the character of the individual who fashioned it. I need to feel that he or she brought something more to the creative act than blind devotion to nature's appearance, that the work in front of me is not only true to nature but true to the man or woman who painted it as well.

What I want, in other words, is evidence that a human being was truly and deeply involved with nature while painting it. It doesn't matter if that involvement was passionate or analytical, if it resulted in bold paintings or in precise ones. And neither does it matter if the work is ''conservative'' or ''advanced.''

All great landscape paintings, indeed all truly good ones, tell us something about those who painted them. This is true even of the great landscapes of China and Japan, despite their almost total dependence upon traditional styles. And for all their strict adherence to the appearances of nature, it is impossible to mistake Constable's landscapes for those by Monet, or Hobbema's for those by Church.

No, humility and a total devotion to nature's appearance are not enough for the creation of art. Individual character and at least a touch of imagination are needed as well. There has to be something about a painted landscape, after all, that makes it special, that makes it something more than a flat-out copy of an existing scene.

The works of John Marin and Charles Burchfield, for instance, while sensitive to the look of the locales depicted, also conveyed those artists' deepest feelings about art and nature. And Andrew Wyeth's crisp but mildly brooding landscapes tell us a great deal about his overall view on life.

Landscape painting, after roughly two decades in the doghouse, is now once again considered legitimate. Large numbers of younger painters are taking advantage of this newfound legitimacy to produce excellent work in this area. Quite a few of them were inspired by the example and the work of Robert Birmelin , a painter-teacher whose devotion to representational art never wavered, even during the period when it was most unfashionable.

Birmelin's landscapes beautifully balance human and outdoor realities. They are never devoid of human feelings, even when no human beings are present in them. This is partly due to the fact that his viewers are never kept at a distance. They are, instead, drawn subtly into his paintings as benign participants, and then slowly begin to empathize with the feelings and emotions that triggered his desire to paint the particular picture with which they are involved.

''Fire on the Beach,'' for instance, involves the viewer the moment he or she first sees it. For all its formal simplicity, it is loaded with subtle emotional nuances and implications. It plays warm against cool, a suggestion of human companionship against a muted sense of isolation, and yet it never forces the contrasts, never forgets that it is, first and foremost, a landscape painting. As such, it is carefully, even ''humbly'' observed, and intelligently and sensitively painted. It is, in short, a human document as well as a loving depiction of nature.

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