As receptive human beings, we are continually aware of the land around us.
This land may inspire the fear of danger, the rage of war, the prosperity
of growth, or the sentimentality of a familiar home. When captured on
canvas, land’s interpretations can be just as diverse and equally
powerful. A dusk scene can divulge an array of emotions, and hills and
water can morph into a vast range of forms. The current exhibition at
the Washington State University Fine Arts Museum features the land, but
it also reveals the human soul.
The museum has gathered landscape pieces from its various art collections,
including British art and Postmodern work; the result is an intriguing
variety of The Changing Shape of Landscape. The message at the beginning
and the end of the exhibit—“YOU ARE HERE”—beckons
the beholder to let their minds wander the land as their feet wonder the
solitary room. Traveling through mediums including oil canvases, watercolor,
photography, and mixed mediums, the view gains an awareness of not only
the different methods of capturing the land on paper, but also of the
different ways humans grasp their surroundings.
Evening Landscape by George Inness is one of the prominent pieces of the
exhibit. The painting evokes beauty and tender dusk at first glance, with
a slight forbearance of the approaching dark. It is only upon closer scrutiny
that one realizes the undertones of Inness’s oil painting. The silhouettes
of ruins in the background, the cart pulling vast amounts of wood in the
middle of the painting, and the single man hauling a relatively meager
amount of wood on his back all signify the Civil War and the discrepancies
between classes at the time Inness painted. One is gently reminded that
art often serves more than an aesthetic need; art can be a way of reflecting
what society says with bullets and blood. It is in this way that something
as seemingly conspicuous as the placing of a bundle of logs can take on
a significant role.
The art in the exhibit flows with the decades, and Civil War Naturalism
gently blends into Impressionism as one follows the white wall along the
back of the room. Because there are examples of the latter movement from
multiple artists, it is possible to compare the differences of individual
artists within a school of art that often seems to conform to itself.
The Impressionist examples showcase different brushstrokes, techniques,
color schemes, and takes on reality.
As hollow steps echo on the wood floor of the museum, viewers can transcend
their actual location and emerge themselves in the artist’s world.
The far walls of the exhibit tiptoe off the edge of our reality and into
a realm of hint and interpretation. The line between the artists becomes
more dotted as the art moves into mixed mediums, Postmodernism and finally
photography. Philip Pearlstein is among the more notable of the modern
artists; though he is renown for his nudes, he evokes the same capacities
in two of his rare landscapes, both acquired by the museum’s permanent
collection. Pearlstein reveals a stark geometric landscape that riggers
a lonely and desolate response. The outlines of his rocks have a nearly
human quality, but not personable enough to relieve the emptiness the
paintings cast onto the viewer.
It is with Pearlstein and the remainder of the exhibit that the title
The Changing Shape of Landscape truly comes into play. Scenes melt into
the abstract and merge into less familiar realms than the previous pieces.
Palouscape by Keith Monaghan is one of the most captivating works upon
entrance to the exhibit; this may be due largely to its significant use
of orange shades, but the acrylic offers more than a unique color scheme.
The rigid geometric quilting of the painting’s lines seem to defy
the country scene they depict. However, the grain elevator emerging from
the wheat fields captures the feeling a driver on Highway 195 might have
as the sun dances with the horizon line casting orange tones onto the
green hills of the Palouse. The piece also seems to play with the urban
qualities spreading to the rural town of America.
The last three pieces exhibited are photographs. After the series of growing
abstractions the photos leap out as both compelling and real. Francis
Ho’s image of Selway Falls is a fitting end to the exhibit, returning
to the rock images used heavily by Pearlstein. One reaches the end of
the exhibit only to find a second sign—YOU ARE HERE—a jolting
shake that we have never left the room…or perhaps we have. Our souls
may travel more than our feet.