Art review: Joan Nelson at Michael Kohn Gallery


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Joan Nelson channels Caspar David Friedrich in her new landscape paintings, many of which show bleak pine trees silhouetted against misty mountain gorges.

Or maybe it’s Ralph Blakelock, the 19th century American Romantic whose bitumen pigments have darkened with time, adding bleak melancholy to already moody pictures. Or the Hudson River School, which inspired Blakelock, as well as more dramatic Western scene-painters like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. Or perhaps the intimate Barbizon painters, urban Parisians who ventured into the countryside with small canvases to paint what they saw.


Even modern photographers such as Carleton Watkins come to mind. Or ... well, you get the idea. Nelson’s 21 lovely small paintings at Michael Kohn Gallery invoke a host of cleverly layered precedents. They pile up one atop another in individual works, seeming to unfold a legacy of cultural image-making right before your eyes.

Born in El Segundo, the New York-based artist has shown with the gallery for 25 years. Well-known for injecting established pictorial landscape traditions into her work, Nelson subtly frames these vistas with pairs of trees, canyon walls, arrays of clouds and even bowl-shaped gradations of light. The thickness of her chunky, unframed panels, each perhaps 2 inches deep, adds material heft; it also emphasizes the surface fragility.

The work’s precision is reflected in the paintings’ dimensions, most just a hair taller than they are wide. (Many are 19 3/4 inches by 19 5/8 inches.) The slight vertical difference delicately undercuts the horizontal spread of a landscape. The artist’s hand and eye get an almost imperceptible edge in devising what we see. There is, in short, nothing natural about these exquisitely fabricated nature-scenes. Nelson’s landscapes instead speak of yearning for and alienation from the natural world, an unbridgeable distance recorded in a postindustrial world. Quiet anxiety runs through her skillfully crafted visions of remote and unpopulated places, and it gives pause.

Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., (323) 658-8088, through Aug. 27. Closed Sun. and Mon.


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