On a warm May afternoon, there’s nothing more soothing than to step out of the heat and into the idyllic Easton Gallery in Montecito. Hidden behind a gate, and closer to Parra Grande Lane than the Hot Springs Road from which it takes its address, the Easton Gallery lovingly displays the area’s top landscape painters in an atmosphere that’s at once serene and serious. The fact that it’s a little out of the way and only open on weekends makes the experience feel like that much more of a discovery. The works now on view there by Pamela Kendall Schiffer offer a great example of the kind of subtle, sophisticated contemporary art through which a new generation is reinvigorating the genre. The show is full of triumphs of all sizes and proportions, each of them celebrating the magic of a particular moment in the life of some specific, extraordinary place.
“October Snowfall near Yellowstone” (2010) represents Schiffer at the height of her considerable powers. It’s a 20” x 20” window that looks out onto the irresistible harmony of seasonal change. With an exquisite sensitivity to the tonal value of ambient white light, the picture delivers the Zen-like pleasures of a fresh snowfall—the hush, the softness, and the feeling of floating—all without even putting your snow boots on. Elsewhere, Schiffer achieves comparable directness and clarity in other formats and with different subjects, demonstrating a sharp eye for composition and an intuition for finding fortuitous coherences wherever she looks. The diminutive size of a 5” x 8” panel depicting a lone “Seagull” (2008) belies its powerful aesthetic impact. Schiffer calibrates horizontal strips of sky-blue and cloud-white in relation to the single indented mark that signifies the bird in flight, creating a heady experience of imaginative soaring for the viewer.
Much of what makes landscape painting interesting comes from the artist’s tacit knowledge of when, where, and how to look. Take Schiffer’s “Round Bales, 6 AM” (2010). Shades of rose, gray, brown, and the slightest hint of blue are deployed horizontally in strata, only to be punctuated by the presence of nearly a dozen cylindrical hay bales, each resting at a slightly different angle to the nascent dawn. There’s no overt statement here, but rather an under-song that harmonizes the natural with the agricultural, and glorifies not only the coming of day but also the work of growth and harvest that got us there. What a great scene to wake up to.
There’s a lot more to like and to write about here, such as Schiffer’s extensive work in the backcountry of Montana and Wyoming. Her stint at the prestigious Ucross Foundation in particular has yielded some marvelous images. Two versions of early morning light in the Absaroka mountain range had me scouring a map to plan my next wilderness trip. Overall, the message of this show, beyond the fact that landscape painting is alive and well as we enter the second decade of a new century, is that it is through dedication to craft that the natural world reveals its sacred meanings.