New York

Maureen Gallace

Nicole Klagsbrun

To trace the lineaments of American landscape painting is to open up a thousand vistas, many imaginary or fantastic, some microscopic, and others immeasurable. Maureen Gallace stakes our a humble stretch, an acre or so, with a horizon bounded by low trees, maybe some water in the foreground, and a couple of houses hunkered down in the middle. It’s a deceptively simple formula. Such reductions have been stock in trade for other landscape painters, such as Albert York, who reveal the paradoxical in the simple. Gallace erases from her landscapes all descriptive detail beyond the play of light on typical forms—gable-roofed house, crescent-shaped boat, mounded, pyramidal tree, arched bridge. Her uninhabited scenes are not records of specific places so much as the essential memories of them. The two snowscapes in her recent show conjured nor winter bur the assignment of picturing winter in gradeschool art classes—what we wanted those pictures to do, or what we now remember we wanted them to do.

Gallace’s paintings describe a private, interiorized world. By definition, her windowless houses are closed to the outside. Grouped in twos or threes, they form communities from which the viewer is excluded: a big house dispenses wordless wisdom to a small house, half-hidden in a grove; a lighthouse makes two flanking houses more stalwart; a boat gravitates to a house placed uncertainly on what could be either land or water; a clump of trees excludes a lone tree. What Gallace depicts is a primary sense of social relations. To a child, there is nothing more mysterious and bizarre than what goes on behind the closed doors of a friend’s home. Gallace alludes to these alien secrets without actually revealing them. Even her palette relays privacy: a dark, silvery Daubigny set of greens and earth tones that soak up shadows, houses so bright they glint like reflectors and seem ready to detach, like abstractions, from the ground. All this heightens the sense that these pictures will tolerate no probing from those bent on gathering information, though they convey the impression that some small event is taking place in a continuity of many events—an interaction among elements all the more exclusive for being instantly recognizable.

Gallace’s practice, however, skids perilously close to that of a trained artist who has adopted the methods of an outsider. Such an approach may have worked for early Modernists, but today it is better exercised with care. In one drawing, Gallace fashions faux-naive flowers, each with a legend: “Plant pansies in the shape of a heart—if they prosper, so too will your love,” “Sleep with a daisy root beneath your pillow and an absent lover may return to you,” and so forth. A painting of violet butterflies also strains at the expressive limits of such a naive approach. These works demonstrate the pitfalls of an indulgent attitude that, in the best of Gallace’s paintings, miraculously flies. A very odd Niagara painting recalls those wondrous “first views” of the falls—early paintings and photographs by artists so stunned they could not contextualize what they saw. There’s nothing there but water and light. Luminous, fantastic, Gallace’s Niagara captures something equally breathtaking—not a putative child’s recording of an initial impression, but an artist’s sudden awareness that a particular working of the brush can both distill and reinvigorate generations of clichéd imagery. Here the general becomes something quite specific, right before our very eyes.

Faye Hirsch