The landscape today is a beloved genre in painting. Many artists use it as a vehicle for environmental statements but the more conventional landscape remains alive and well, full of potency and portent, as we see in three exhibitions at the Dunedin Fine Art Center.
The tradition goes back to the Greeks and Romans who frescoed their villas with verdant exterior scenes, but landscapes subsequently fell from favor with those ancient empires. Religious subjects reigned supreme during the Middle Ages. By the 16th century, that preference had evolved into history paintings with codified rules of composition and included mythological and classical themes. Landscapes, scenes of everyday life (called genre paintings) and portraits were considered inferior categories by powerful art academies throughout Europe.
A shift began in the Netherlands in the early 1500s with the rise of a merchant class who were more worldly and valued visible signs of material wealth. Mostly Protestant, they wanted secular art rather than the dramatic Biblical narratives favored by patrons in the predominantly Catholic countries of France, Italy and Spain.
By the 18th century, landscapes had gained more respect throughout Europe as the wealthy embarked on Grand Tours and commissioned souvenirs of their journey, paintings that acted as big, expensive postcards. But landscapes didn't come into their own as high art until the 19th century when painters began hauling their easels and palettes outside to paint real life scenes rather than idealized vistas. Claude Monet became rich from his water lilies. Van Gogh eventually (and posthumously) became famous for his fields. The rise of photography abetted the popularity.
Visit any outdoor art festival now and notice how landscape artists proliferate. Look around most public lobbies and you'll probably find a preponderance of landscapes gracing their walls.
Easy to explain: Traditional landscapes are like windows that lighten up a room. So it is with the landscapes at the Dunedin Fine Art Center.
Good landscapes, though, have to be more than pretty. The eight artists represented in these shows give us a diverse definition of the form and make the important point that beautiful art can also be interesting.
Though they're not displayed in the center's main gallery (or even secondary gallery) but lined up along a narrow hallway-gallery, those by Lois Dodd are, for me, the main event.
Dodd, 82, paints from nature, but her reductive style creates a vibrant tension between abstraction and representation that she has honed to near perfection during her long career. She's one of those artists who has never gotten the attention she deserves from the curatorial gatekeepers of major museums. That will probably change at some point, as it has for many artists of her generation. For now, we have the pleasure of seeing her small botanicals and landscapes, painted with spare, sure strokes. A few from her series of nude women relaxing or working are included, their bodies so undelineated they will offend no one. Dodd is sometimes compared to Edward Hopper. There are similarities but her scenes have none of Hopper's brooding undercurrents. She imbues every image with significance in her formal treatment of it; she feels no need to layer on excessive paint or angst to convey its value. As the Zen proverb states: After enlightenment, the laundry.
The center's large gallery houses "The Meditative Landscape," a group show of 24 paintings and drawings by six artists. Their various treatments of standard landscape conventions provide fun and enlightening comparisons. Cumulous clouds, for instance. Phil Epp gives them drama by putting them in broad skies that take up most of the canvas, using high contrasts and few shadows. Matthew Cornell's clouds are softly suffused in gently reflective waterscapes. Alan Bray, like Epp, uses colors in dramatic counterpoints. He takes his landscapes much further, playing with perspective and detail (and our perceptions) to artificial, even lurid, effect. I thought Dale Jarrett's black and white pencil drawings were photographs at first, done with the blurry dreaminess of early photography. Nope, they're just really gorgeous drawings possessing a melancholic nod to memory.
Taylor Ikin's exuberant watercolors fill a second gallery. Her intimate witness to a fragile Florida ecosystem is probably the most topical of any artists in the exhibitions but her loose, free style instills a larger joy about nature. Which is probably what makes her the most accessible of the exhibiting artists.
And accessibility is the landscape's most enduring quality as a crowd pleaser. Its lessons are swallowed with more sugar than salt. And yet you still have the feeling, after seeing one, that you've learned things worth knowing.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.