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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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