New York

Joan Nelson

Fawbush Gallery

Joan Nelson makes small, intimate, untitled landscape paintings that are extraordinarily lovely. They have a smoldering, luminescent atmosphere that gives them an aged, old master look. In part this is technically created. Each one is painted on panel in layers, with the paint seeping into the pores of the wood, and most are coated with wax (in this exhibition, 10 out of the 12 works shown). Sensual surface is layered upon sensual surface, creating a glazed look of embalmed beauty. It is the surface of mystery that the old masters seemed to achieve effortlessly, a surface whose gracious sensuality dignified whatever was rendered, giving it an aura that forced us to take it seriously, even if it was apparently the most ordinary object.

These days, with earth's verdant mantle increasingly threatened, landscape seems to have gained in significance. To paint tantalizing bits of landscape—especially the tops of trees, or the horizon's disjunction between dark earth and light sky—in a manner that recalls Claude Lorraine's scenes of the Italian Campagna, is to reassert the priority of nature with quiet passion. However, Nelson's landscapes are not simply reprises of traditional landscape, as they might appear to be at first glance, but fugitive, mannerist homages to the grand tradition of ideal landscape. They summarize and epitomize rather than copy their sources. This is suggested by their fragmentary character and the peculiarly intense evanescence of the scenes depicted. Nelson achieves this in part by extending the traditional formula of one-third earth and two-thirds sky into scenes completely dominated by sky, which creates an exaggerated condition of imbalance. Recapturing the moment of wistful transcendence that Goethe articulated in his description of tranquillity “in allen Wipfeln” (in all the treetops) in one of his most famous poems, she suggests a condition so inherently “unearthly” that her landscapes seem to exist beyond the force of earth's gravity. In other words, these are a blithe spirit's fantasy landscapes, certain details of which have been rendered with the precision of a botanist. As in a dream, the details seem overparticularized and overfamiliar, but the whole is unfamiliar and ultimately alien.

Nelson's “post-Modernist” landscapes, with their rhapsodic ecological character, bespeak a yearning for the pastoral that is typical of an alienated, urban culture. It is our overcivilized—in some cases overestheticized—condition that has led to this particular nostalgia, and our typical response is to create equally estheticized islands of private ecstasy to escape from the surfeit of “civilization.” Nelson's paintings reflect this paradox, being at once overcivilized in their memorializing, antiquarian manner and primitively rapturous in their tone.

Donald Kuspit