LANDSCAPES and still lifes are the cliches of art: Every painter thinks he or she can do them. But the best - George Inness, Thomas Hart Benton, and Georgia O'Keeffe - endowed their work with qualities of their own interior mindscape plus a powerful sense of the land's - or object's - mythology.
Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School and George Inness captured the unspoiled American landscape on canvas and tantalized their countrymen with views of an uncharted wilderness, but they also painted what they believed was a paradise of pure virtues, far from the complexities and immorality of civilization. This fed the romantic notions that suggested the cure for society's ills lay in western expansion.
The move West was given different treatment by Benton, who, in his best-known works, described the characters and personalities that inhabited rural towns and farms. He made the curves of the land reflect a certain backwardness, an amiable stubbornness in the people. The West was a place for Tom Joads, migrant workers, itinerant musicians, and con artists.
Georgia O'Keeffe painted the flowering of her womanly independence. She took landscapes at both a literal level and as metaphor. O'Keeffe saw the Taos, New Mexico, sky as her freedom, and painted the hills in colors inflamed with passion for the land. (Travelers are sometimes disappointed on their first trip to O'Keeffe country when the ravines and hills fail to measure up to her powerful images, so completely did she define what we think of as the Southwest.)
In the late 1980s, landscapes and still lifes reemerged as important forms of artistic expression. Partly as a reaction to abstract art's dominance, and partly because of the emphasis on environmental concerns, there is strong interest again in Western landscape painting and the classic challenge of still lifes.
Two painters, who happen to be married to each another, have devoted most of their working lives to these two art forms. Jessie Benton Evans Gray (no relation to Thomas Hart Benton) and her husband, Don Gray, are the inheritors of those landscape and still-life traditions.
The couple came of age artistically in the fractured art world of New York in the 1960s. They each had experimented with non-objective painting in college, but in New York they refused to be drawn into the prevailing trends of Abstract Expressionism. They chose instead to bring a 20th-century sensibility to landscape and still-life painting.
Once Benton Evans and Gray realized that the paintings they made in the East were inspired by their memories and impressions of the Southwest, it became clear that they would eventually return to live there. Today their work centers around the Arizona landscape they knew as children. The couple have quietly garnered acclaim from critics in New York and the Southwest, with a ringing endorsement by the late Elaine de Kooning, who named Benton Evans one of the top 10 women artists in the country. These are two serious, mature, working, selling, not-really-household-name artists. Gray is also a respected art critic and commentator.
I visited Evans and Gray at a house outside Scottsdale, Arizona, where they had moved their large canvases for viewing. (Their studio in Carefree was too small to allow distance for gazing.) The paintings dwarfed the bric-a-brac in the living room; Gray's meticulously arranged still lifes leaned against Benton Evans' raging, elemental landscapes. The colors were so rich and strong it seemed as if they would soak through the canvas onto one another.
The couple struck me as solid, regular people with no outward signs of their profession: no paint-stained clothes or exotic mannerisms. They are energetic, but in different ways - Gray has a decisive, no-nonsense air that calls to mind a professor, which he was at one time, and Benton Evans exudes a presence that seems lit from within.
They were eager to talk about their work, and proud of each other's projects.
Gray enjoys holding forth on his art, and he brims with the political, sociological, and psychological points of his painting. Where still lifes through the ages have been exercises in composition, control, and accurate representation, Gray brings out something different. His paintings embrace the rules of good composition, and he consciously uses the masters of still life as his inspiration - Cezanne for one - but he updates the form. Sometimes Gray adds a self-portrait to his mix of fruits, or fish, or
other household objects. He has taken the role of social commentator by painting a $5 or $1 bill into a work. In fact, one of his biggest gripes concerns the overimportance of money in art.
"Commercialization is ever-present in art, [and an artist has] to rise above it," Gray says. "I think the high price of art is significant - it's pointing out the spiritual desperation in our time. [Paintings] become the most precious icons because they were the results of the efforts of the last real human beings - we're so stressed out and deluded compared to those painters."
Gray's still lifes - especially those in which he depicts art books propped open to famous painters' works - succeed in pointing out the importance of tradition, while commenting on the barrenness of some 20th-century art. Gray says that "significant art is artists in touch with the past but living in the present. For a lot of the younger people, art history began with Jackson Pollock; it creates a terrible limitation on artistic possibilities. You're severing yourself from the whole of art."
While Gray focuses on the continuum of art traditions, Benton Evans sets full sail for the future. Her landscapes are apocalyptic, full of the crashing of the elements: wind, rain, fire, sun. She injects the skies with a vibrating force that fairly leaps off the canvas. She paints where O'Keeffe left off; no conventional restraints pose a hindrance to her imagination.
Benton Evans brings the American landscape full circle: Inness romanticized Western expansion, Thomas Hart Benton lampooned it, and O'Keeffe elevated it to the level of a religious force. Benton Evans creates landscapes that are Western based, but that leap into a freewheeling, supernatural, hyper-real world all their own.
When I caught up with Benton Evans in Scottsdale recently by telephone, I asked her if she thought people will ever tire of landscapes.
"There'll always be a tremendous need for landscape in art, because it's a thing that revitalizes the spirit. Why else would people go on a vacation and get out in the country? Even if you're in a city, you unconsciously relate to the land and have a need for it. And as different eras come, there will be different interpretations of it. I have a very 20th-century interpretation that's bolder and more aggressive, some would say over exaggerated."
Benton Evans says she and her husband have begun a series of night-sky paintings from the roof of their house in Scottsdale. The painter says she feels a sense of destiny, that she's supposed to be painting a land of "huge magnitude."
"Nature deals in superlatives all the time," she says. "Even in terms of billions of little flies, everything is in excess. There's tremendous life there, beyond our comprehension." The two artists' works will be exhibited at el Pedregal at the Boulders in Carefree, Arizona, from April 22 to May 17.