Sometimes what makes a work of art interesting is not what the artist includes but what the artist leaves out. A simplified composition doesn’t always equate to restraint, though. Instead, the artist might take what remains behind as a launching point, an excuse to elaborate.
This month’s show at Peter Blake Gallery features two artists who might both be variously defined as abstract, landscape or color field painters. But they aren’t any of those things, exactly.
Both paint imaginary landscapes, stripped of all particulars and done in colors rarely found in nature. That may be where the similarity ends.
Jeff Peters’ paintings begin as digital compositions taken from nature and photo-shopped together. The result is photographically-influenced, highly atmospheric landscape fantasies. They each seem to capture some aspect of the natural world and explore all the visual implications of, say, light through trees, or symmetry, or the strange blue of shadows.
The artist’s color palette may strike you first. It contains no pure blacks or whites. It’s all unnatural greens, pinks or yellows. They are strange shades found in odd combinations, or glowing on nearly monochromatic canvases.
Another characteristic seems to be totally flat, matte surfaces with nearly invisible brushstrokes. Peters works in oil, so this takes a certain amount of technical knowledge.
The style complements his exceedingly strange depths, which seem to be comprised of only two places: the far, deep background and the immediate surface, with no in between.
“The Pink Valley” (oil on canvas on panel, 60" x 60") is so impossible, it borders on the fantastical. A shocking range of brown-tinted pink ice glows in a foreground that falls away with no transition to Himalayan peaks done in yellows and browns, which in turn give way yet a third time to black and white hills (night? or lack of color?).
So perfect is the surface that it almost looks a still from a Hayao Miyazaki film. The edges of the mountain peaks in the background are so clean they almost look airbrushed, but the jagged ice in the foreground is razor-clean.
It’s as if Peters has taken old idea of the sublime in landscape and stripped it of its awe, reducing it down to its most useful forms.
Peters’ compositions sometimes edge in the direction of the graphic arts. “Steeple” (71" x 63") has an axis of symmetry that almost creates a mirror image on both sides of the canvas. Almost. Orange silhouettes of forest plants grow up to become branches that further on up suggest antlers. Deep in the glowing background, in front of the light source, a real evergreen looms. The real details are always buried in the background (and in Peters’ paint).
Because of this, the smaller canvases are less successful. They somehow seem more cartoonish and crowded. They lose that strange sense of absence and soaring coldness.
Robert Porte, on the other had, knows small canvases. He has specialized in tiny (11" x 11") paintings on metal. The new show finds Porte working on canvas and on a larger surface — a mere 20" x 30".
When you walk into the gallery, you will find yourself in a room full of horizons. Although you could say Porte paints the sea, it seems to me that he is obsessed with the horizon line, and the sea just happens to be the place you get the best view of it.
Accordingly, Porte’s paintings are just barely seascapes. They are seascapes for the most part because we’re visually trained, given a straight horizontal line drawn across the page, what’s above the line is sky and what’s below is water.
That’s about all you need to know. Even in Porte’s most “realistic” portrayals of the ocean — such as “Dreaming the Last Light” (20" x 30"), which has such carefully painted waves, you seem to see them move — the horizon is formed where the cadmium yellow sky meets the cadmium yellow water in a physical bump that runs in a thin line across the canvas.
In “Morning Rolling In,” the water is (as seems more typical for Porte) windless still. It’s no longer water, really. It’s a color study, a magical set of greens and yellows so thick with straight, horizontal brushwork that it looks like silk.
The sea contains our purest demarcation of an edge, the distant and elusive end. Porte’s small fragments remind us of the larger whole by not attempting to encompass infinity. Some horizon lines are more, some less clear. But there is always the constant reminder of a limit, a dropping off point — or a limitlessness — depending on how you look at it.
The show should give you a sense of the looseness of landscape and “nature” — the very different take two contemporary painters have on being in the world, painting a place that doesn’t exist and that you need not see in order to understand.