Last Lamp, 40x50, oils on canvas, 2008
Tumultuous landscapes reveal full force of nature
Favoring storms, turmoil over meditative tranquility
By Stephanie Buhmann
Born in New Zealand and currently based in Brooklyn, Louise Guerin is known for her portraits and still lifes. Her third New York solo exhibition, currently on display at Blue Mountain Gallery, offers the public a chance to see a collection of recent works primarily featuring impressively tumultuous landscapes.
These paintings are largely inspired by the coasts of New Zealand, as well as by Park City, Utah where Guerin completed an artist residency program last spring. In Park City, Guerin found herself surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. It was, as she remembers, the almost deafening silence and the magnificent hum of the power of those peaks that left a lasting impression. It is interesting that this description is much less visual than it is related to sound. In her portrayals of nature on the cusp of upheaval, Guerin seems to capture a sort of noise.
Her compositions are far from tranquil. Unlike many other landscape painters, she is not trying to bestow an overt meditative quality upon her work. Instead, vivid brushwork characterizes many of the compositions. It initiates an overall dramatic quality, leaving the unsettled pigment to further stress imbalance. In Guerin, we see the ocean in turmoil, its waves thrashing against a seemingly endless shoreline.
Water and sky are intertwined in a gesture of movement, forming a multi-layered pattern of weaving lines that bring Edvard Munchs The Scream to mind. In another example, we find ourselves witnessing an array of dark clouds as an approaching storm casts its spell with deep shadows on the land underneath. While they are foreboding the turbulences to come, they also veil us in uncertainty. Literally speaking, we are kept in the dark. These paintings do show nature in full force, Guerin states. It is nature at its most raging and powerful. It is not something that is often on view in the city, but exhilarating to witness and to feel a distinctly tiny part of, Guerin adds.
In their overt expressionism, Guerins works are reminiscent of the early 20th Century works by the German Brücke artists, such as Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde. As in many German Expressionists works, Guerins landscapes become transcending agents. To the viewer, they offer an emotional experience rather than a likeness of a physical reality.
One cannot help but think that Guerins landscapes might address something larger than what is shown. When asked if she viewed her works as allegories, she replied that indeed, the last time she visited New Zealand, there had been a series of huge storms, which did seem to be a metaphor or an allegory if you like, for the turmoil happening globally. In other words, no matter how traditional their subject matter, Guerins landscapes are meant to reflect very contemporary concerns. The storms she paints might unfold in a natural setting, but to her, they also refer to the storms that have been unleashed in todays politics and economics. Guerin succeeds in capturing an energy that leaves us on edge, wondering about the ranging forces that might come and sweep us away.
While Guerins paintings from the past often featured vivid colors and stark contrasts, she began to experiment with a new, much more subdued palette about two years ago. In fact, many of the landscapes in this exhibition appear as almost de-saturated. While she plays with nuances, the colors favored here are based on varying shades of grey, black and white. Some of the larger works are even almost monochromatic and it is a surprise to find Guerin restrain from employing dramatic colors in order to describe a dramatic content. To Guerin, this is not a contradiction. The palette choice was a way of emphasizing the seriousness of the upheaval all around us, she explains. Black and white can give light and shadow a mysterious and expressive quality that is not necessarily a gloomy one. I could also concentrate on the effects of light on the stark beauty I chose as subject matter.
Interestingly, Guerins subject matter is very much inspired by her personal memories. She culls from personal experience and, in particular, the individual seascapes are geographically specific. She grew up in a small city with the sea and mountains all around in bright, clear light.
Actual sites inspire many of the sceneries. The beach in Last Lamp, for example, is one she has been visiting all her life and studied in all kinds of weather conditions. She remembers that on one occasion, The sea was wild, the waves so high and the wind relentless. The driftwood did look like bones. Just as our memories aid in abstracting first impressions over time, Guerins paintings manifest as an abstraction of a real experience. No matter how metaphorical, they also provide an intimate glimpse into the artists emotive world.
One of Guerins great strengths is her ability to bestow a sense of timelessness upon her works. She partially achieves this through her unusual choice of colors think of the classicism of a black and white photograph for example but also through her harmonious fusion of form and content. Though her landscapes are specific, the depicted forces seem universally applicable.
Guerin aims to leave as much room as possible for the viewers own interpretations. When asked if she would view her compositions as dreamscapes, Guerin reflects: Dreams often have somber tones and many layers of meaning which arent immediately obvious. Even though a situation can seem utterly bleak, there are still sustaining elements and even limits.