Joan Nelson used to paint trees. She stopped when the paintings (landscapes, always) began to turn into portraits, with the trees as subjects, and the landscape—its infinite space, intense detail, light—reduced to wallpaper. It was a natural choice: an extension of the instinct honed over years painting landscapes, a practice based around appropriation and reconstructing natural imagery, to remove the human trace. “I don’t want a human presence, or even an animal presence,” she says. “Because then the painting has a specific focal point, and it’s about that focal point.” For someone well-aware of the social underpinnings of her subject matter, this choice becomes even more remarkable at a time when terms like Anthropocene and ecological collapse have made it into the headlines. Erasing the focal point suggests another disappearance—that of the spectator’s point of view. That of the spectator.
This spring, Nelson’s paintings are included in Adams and Ollman’s Independent presentation, continuing her career-long exploration of the tradition of landscape painting. Though both image and construction point directly to the process of their construction, the works depict a world beyond the touch of human civilization. To first take them in is to arrive on a foreign shore.
Emerging from an emerald sea, mountains pull sightlines into the distance, rock formations jut upwards, only to be worn down by age. The landscapes feel both new and impossibly old—outside of civilized time. You feel first in line of the viewers; they’ve never been seen before. They are some of the most fantastic compositions of Nelson’s acclaimed career. As someone who has looked to the history of landscape painting to explore our current relationship with the environment, these mark another departure. “I’m thinking of a future world.”
First emerging in the 1980s East Village scene, Nelson explored the vogue of appropriation and commodity fetishism by remixing a dustier consumer good: traditional landscape painting. By cribbing elements from painters like Albrecht Altdorfer, Thomas Cole, and Caspar David Friedrich, she re-plowed this artistic terrain, countering its historical masculinity with a cannily feminist sensibility, and exposing landscape’s more problematic veins (imperialism, et al). Her project evolving to refer to differing periods and sensibilities, Nelson soon arrived at her trademark presentation: thickly layered compositions built upon the heft of 12-ply panel. As the image drips down the side, its pictorialism breaking up into rivulets of paint that soak into the wood, Nelson rejoices in the materialism—the stuff of the painting—as much as the image itself. And though her references have varied over the years—often complementing her painterly source material is early landscape photography, with more recent works borrowing from Google Image and Instagram—her subject matter hasn’t. She paints landscapes.
"I don’t want a human presence, or even an animal presence."
Her paintings are both startlingly beautiful and somewhat sad. The layers of acrylic, milk paint, and ink allow her to mix pictorial styles. And while she is still painting on panel, these works are framed, revealing a choice to focus on the image itself more than the record of the painting having been made. A further departure: she has begun painting on quarter-inch sheets of Plexiglas—a choice that provides a sense of levity in the paintings. The paintings are intensely worked; details emerge upon close inspection, and sometimes the viewer needs to step back to have everything click into place. There are moments of illogic—an irreverence Nelson embraces, feeling no need to stay within the rules of science. Sure, these are portals into another world, but they’re also paintings, their strange effects the result of milk paint’s chalky atmospherics, the lexicographic signature of a pencil stroke.
It’s this mastery of different materials—not only how they create pictures on their own, but how they interact—that allows her to pull in different references. More fanciful than before, these paintings don’t so much as critique those traditional duties of landscape painting, naturalism and nation-making, as ignore them entirely. To the God-on-our-side illumination of Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Hart Benton’s industrious plumes of smoke she adds another, more freewheeling sensibility. The impossible compositions, the playful forms and linework, even the clouds themselves borrow from outsider artists like Joseph Yoakum, who traveled the world, then drew from memory.
In order for land to become a landscape, it needs to be observed. Landscape paintings need landscape painters. Whether or not humanity is represented within the composition, every landscape painting presupposes human presence—at least in the form of the painter-observer. And yet, here Nelson moves beyond that, separating the viewer of the painting from the viewer of the landscape—to give us an image of a world separate from our own—a place that once was home, or one day could be.
The one thing that connects us to these landscapes is beauty, and with that, a sense of possibility that, while forlorn, is not without hope. One of the most striking elements of the paintings are the circular mammatus clouds receding into space. In speaking about these forms, which truly seem out of this world, Nelson says: “there’s beauty that’s so beautiful it’s just too intimidating.” Her response is a constant striving toward beauty, constructing images out of views both real and imagined, pulling from disparate traditions, bending credulity toward her own aim, “getting it just perfect,” she says, before crashing against the ideal, and pushing instead toward her vision. Perfection is a wall that has vexed landscape painters throughout history. “A depiction will never hold up to reality.” Which might be true, but just means that the paintings must create a new reality. Perhaps the viewers can do the same.