“Nothing is worth painting without an element of jeopardy,” Robin Gowen maintains. It is a philosophy that yields a fascinating diversity in her current exhibit of landscapes.
Gowen’s brushwork changes dramatically from canvas to canvas. The two largest pieces, horizontal mountain scenes that bookend the show from opposite ends of the gallery, demonstrate how greatly the results can diverge. In “August in Indian Valley,” pine-covered mountains, predominantly blue, green, and purple, are rendered almost entirely in vertical brush strokes, like a quantity of rain arrested in descent. In “Anderson Overlook, 103Â°F, ” rolling yellow slopes appear sculpted out of pigment. “Everything is abstraction,” Gowen says. These paintings are less about accuracy than about a courageous quest for a visual outcome. It is the sense of a single identity behind these works that unites them, not slavish adherence to technique.
Nevertheless, there is a vocabulary here, an unfolding language explored afresh with each composition. It is as if the life and movement of the land is given voice by the artist’s effort to possess it. “Golden Hills,” a depiction of the vast expanse of rolling hills near Pinnacles National Monument in its winter coloration, confronts one with the daunting prospect of distance. The same scene in a verdant state, “In the Green-Hills, Hills, and Hills XIII,” evokes the invitation to wander. In “Procession of Oaks,” a stand of venerable California live oaks at the foot of undefined mountains, Gowen’s luscious and deft application of pigment resonates with the mystery of place. Providing an even greater element of contrast, “Popcorn” (a view of a traveling carnival at Earl Warren Showgrounds), “Late Night Coffee,” and “Market” depict intimate configurations of city lights afloat in dense and fluid darkness, like a call to reflect on the elusive peregrinations of consciousness.
A grouping of 20 or so small sketches clustered near the back of the gallery bear testament to the range and diversity of Gowen’s abilities. These scenes-a bend in a road, two trees in a meadow, a line of hills-all evidence specificity in both method and image. Robin Gowen’s style, it seems, is her willingness to challenge herself.