Landscape is probably two-dimensional art’s most accessible form. But when painted scenes of photorealism or Monet-derived Impressionism are pushed into the realm of abstraction — far from the genre’s root form that requires meticulous observation and recording — what was once “just” a depiction turns into a visual poem about nature.
This month, Tryon’s Upstairs Artspace ventures further across the non-representational border with its show Abstract Expectations: Artists Redefine Landscape, opening March 18. More than 40 pieces by six artists will take up both floors of the gallery. The show is curated by Tryon artist Dale McEntire, who first came to wide notice as an en plein air painter firmly in the Impressionist camp. “I’ve moved to a style that has become quite abstract, but still rooted in the imagery and my connection to nature,” says McEntire. “The process has been a slow one that continues to steadily change.”
His fellow exhibitors have their own boundaries to break. Asheville-based artist Cindy Walton, who creates in oil and cold wax, says she is “influenced by a location or an experience in a location — but in a broad sense.” She uses a palette drawn from the dominant colors of forest, ocean, and meadow to suggest the outdoors perceived in reverie, untethered to whatever first caught her eye. “It may be color, light, or line that intrigues me,” says Walton. “I want the viewer to have a sense of place, but I don’t want to reveal the whole picture.”
Eric Benjamin of Greenville says landscape opened the door to a new direction in his career. “As a young artist, I was drawn to figurative work and still life,” he notes. “The landscape was something that I liked to draw, but I wasn’t compelled to paint it until I began exploring abstraction.” He finds his inspiration in specific locations, parts of which appear in the finished piece; however, he says he is more concerned with showing a “strong, emotional, positive image” than in recreating a concrete place: “It’s a representation, not a documentation, of nature.” His canvases are populated with tree-like forms in shades of pink, red, and orange, set against horizons broken by distant hills. They’re both playful and meditative, signaling something hidden but vital.
Tryon-based artist Keith Spencer came to landscape relatively late in life, when he turned to painting full time in the ’90s. “I actually see myself as more of a figure painter,” says Spencer — and his “figurative foundation” is still key to his art. Distinguished by large blocks of color, Spencer’s scenes are nature softened, its hard edges rounded and gentled. He notes that during his years as a farm manager, landscape was part of his daily life. And so today, “only rarely are there images of manmade objects in my work.”
Lynne Tanner is a New York City native who settled in Rutherfordton 40 years ago and has been painting professionally almost that long. Her most well-known body of landscapes was inspired years ago by a visit to the salt marshes of coastal South Carolina. As her experience of that unique meeting of land and sea began to percolate, its iconic symbols — shore birds, dunes, tidal pools, boardwalks — segued into the celebrated series of oils. Her landscapes may be set in motion by place, “but that location is quickly transformed and often lost as I work,” says Tanner. “I no longer even try to keep the landscape’s integrity, though the final product often reads like a landscape.”
Moving more assertively into the realm of pure abstraction is Asheville’s William Henry Price, whose minutely detailed oils seem to read their subjects through a microscope. “I’m painting inside the visible world, where everything is vibrant and alive,” says Price. “I never think I’m doing an abstract painting. I just want to paint the aliveness of the world.” He could be what McEntire calls a “nature symbolist” — portraying the spiritual essence inside obvious forms.
Valuing the natural world is a crucial requirement of humanity, according to McEntire. That’s why, he says, he “continues to explore new ways of interpreting this relationship. … I don’t consider myself a social or political artist, but if I’m trying to express the interconnectedness of life, I can confront the fragile balance of our environment.” As that fragility continues to be tested, the work in Landscapes Abstracted accelerates the dialogue.
Abstract Expectations: Artists Redefine Landscape opens at Upstairs [Artspace] — 49 S. Trade Street in Tryon — with a reception on Saturday, March 18, 6-7:30pm. A “walk and talk” with the featured artists begins at 5pm. The show runs through April 28. For more information, call 828-859-2828 or visit upstairsartspace.org.