Ben Whitehouse

Belloc Lowndes Fine Art

Plein-air painting, once a central genre of modern art, has experienced such a precipitous decline in recent decades as to have practically disappeared. In what often seems an openhanded acknowledgment of the accomplishments of his art-historical predecessors, Ben Whitehouse revisits the challenge of constructing images that emerge from a close observation of the natural world. His work seems to offer some muted mirror of benign nature, providing a selection of sylvan and soothing snippets of landscape that evoke the same peace and calm that earlier artists sought and in many ways imposed onto their depictions of the world.

In Whitehouse’s paintings, land and sky take on their carefully constructed cultural roles of physical decompression, of emotional salves offering alternatives to modern urbanized life, providing an outlet that is no less escapist because it might be real. This effect, however, is not actually realized in plein air: Whitehouse sometimes employs photography on site (usually at locations in the Chicago area), then edits and adjusts the images in his studio to maximize the arcadian fantasy. Not only is there not a single human present in any of his paintings, there are no animals, no buildings, no boats, no evidence of the human hand. Whitehouse offers nature both complete and denuded: pristine, as if we viewers were the first living things ever to encounter this virgin territory, a peaceful emptiness so vast that it cannot help but offer psychological balm.

There is often very little land in Whitehouse’s landscapes. Instead, the monumental Lagoon (Twilight), 2002, is a typical image, having water throughout the foreground. The viewer is positioned standing in the water or in the prow of some unseen boat, isolated and adrift on a placid lake. In the distance is a forested shoreline composed of two low hills converging at the center of the painting. A vaguely misty sky tops the painting, and both sky and forest are almost perfectly mirrored in the waters of the cove. Tree Tops, 2002, is just that, a smallish array of the upper regions of autumn trees seen against an enormous expanse of wispy sky filling nearly 90 percent of the image.

Whitehouse employs a rather taut paint handling reminiscent at times of the pale, summery Impressionism of early Alfred Sisley, or of the landscapes of William Merritt Chase. His brushstrokes accrete patiently and unobtrusively, seemingly in accord with the scene he represents, reinforcing an air of equanimity and calm. His composition, too, with its tendency toward classical construction—framing elements, ease of access, parity of light and dark, etc.—presents the landscape as a realm of balance and logic. Whitehouse’s activity, like the scenes he represents, seems almost outside time, indifferent to the fashions of art or the vagaries of the contemporary. Like nature, this work abides, and its pertinence resides in the inexhaustible relevance of its fundamental aspiration: to try to find again in the surrounding world a harmony that passes understanding, a manner of thinking of nature as meta- and paraphysical home.

James Yood