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Californiana


Visions

At the Easton Gallery. Shows through November 26.

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

sage_and_oaks.jpg

There is a certain implicit painterly code among plein air practitioners. It states, in effect, “I was standing in front of this as I painted it. Although you can see the brushwork at times, I have striven to capture the light just as it fell on my subject, just as it would have fallen onto your retina if you had been standing where I stood.” In her show Visions, now at the Easton Gallery through November 26, Phoebe Brunner shows that although she is familiar with this code, and even fluent in it, she is happiest violating it.

In “Sage and Oaks,” for example, the hills are not so much observed as imagined, made over and made regular in the mind of the artist. Each hill follows the same parabola, neatly lining up across the picture plane. The hills are shaded on one side, and the shadows under the trees fall at the corresponding angle, as if the location of sun were as simple as an elementary math problem. The colors are what we think of when we think of a landscape, and not what our eye takes in. The grass is yellow, the sky is blue, and the clouds are white. The scene is invented — the way a concerto is invented. The hills play against each other like the notes in a chord. The trees and sage, repetitive and varied, chime in, and the clouds echo back their shapes. Brunner’s liberties with landscape make room for lyricism.

The effect is charming in the way that “le douanier” Henri Rousseau charms after an afternoon spent among the Impressionists. It is not simply primitivism, nor is it childlike. Brunner can populate a sky with clouds out of Ruysdael, as she does in “Hidden Hills.” But why should she, when she can create the sculptural wonders that stand in as clouds in “The Extra Mile”?

And yet, this idealizing effect is disquieting as well. These are not just any landscapes. You will recognize their features: alluvial plains surrounded by gently rolling hills, diminutive but gnarled oak, fields of orange poppies, curving mountain roads. The artist’s will is at play in our backyards. As in the work of earlier American Primitivists Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, Brunner remakes the land so strongly in terms of the ideal that it is hard not to feel in these pictures some of the pull of Manifest Destiny.



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