Emma Tapley

Fischbach Gallery

Beyond their scale and genre, Emma Tapley’s small, realist landscape paintings, all but two of the fifteen on view from 1999, have little more in common than their surface quality, which is of an almost perfect smoothness and even density. Although photographs may well enter into the preparatory stage of Tapley’s working process, the paintings themselves are not notably photographic in feeling (except insofar as we lazily associate any form of illusionistic realism with the camera), but they resemble photographs in the way the image seems to inhere in a homogeneous surface, as in an emulsion. That’s not to say that Tapley completely effaces any trace of her hand, however; the individual brushstroke can sometimes be quite evident, though minute. It’s as if each one has deposited the least necessary quantum of paint, so that the visible trace remains as nearly devoid of substance and dimensionality as possible.

Otherwise, as I said, Tapley’s stylistic resources are various. She can handle open compositions with few elements and a large internal scale as well as crowded ones that seem to have been painstakingly pieced together. She’s clearly examined the work of the most astute contemporary landscape paintersthere are possible influences from Helen Miranda Wilson, Jane Wilson, even Rackstraw Downes, though the terrain she’s chosen is quite different from his industrial exurbia. In some paintings Tapley’s sympathies with Romanticism in general, and American luminism in particular, are evident, but elsewhere she works with the compressed space of modernist painting. (I wonder if she’s studied, for instance, the too-little-known landscapes of Giorgio Morandi.) There are highly atmospheric views across boundless distances, as in untitled (fog, mountain), 1999, in which a watery blue-gray mist envelops everything almost to the point of illegibility. But there are also precise though not finicky renderings of minute details, like the complex reflections on the water’s surface in untitled (Asamuck Creek), 1999. Untitled (flame), 1999, swerves away from the landscape genre toward a kind of abstraction. A striking close-up of a flickering fire isolated in darkness with no clues as to relative scale, it could be anything from a tiny match flame to a huge conflagration, but it’s mostly a celebration of its own paradoxically modest form of painterly bravura.

The play of reflections often serves to afford the spatial ambiguities that animate many of Tapley’s best paintings. From a distance, untitled (pond, tree, rain, feather), 1999, looks as if it had been accidentally hung sideways. A closer look reveals that the treetops are being seen laterally in the dark mirror of rain-spattered pond water. But that’s not the only way she has of confounding perceptual and compositional expectations. Untitled (Latourell Falls, Columbia Falls), 1999, is divided about a third of the way from its left by a spout of falling water in a way that insistently recalls a horizon line—a different method of getting you to subliminally reexamine the image as if it weren’t right side up. In such paintings, simple perception reveals itself to be a strenuous intellectual undertaking, implicitly refuting the presumption that landscape painting has degenerated into a hopelessly escapist enterprise. There are realms in which pleasure and difficulty conflict, but not here.

Barry Schwabsky