Dan Attoe, Visitor Center with Pines, 2016, oil on canvas, 48 × 48".

Dan Attoe, Visitor Center with Pines, 2016, oil on canvas, 48 × 48".

Dan Attoe

Dan Attoe, Visitor Center with Pines, 2016, oil on canvas, 48 × 48".

“I never thought I would be a landscape painter,” Dan Attoe once remarked—and yet landscapes have played a role in all his work to date, as settings for figures in action. Attoe grew up in nature, his parents working as foresters around the country, so he is familiar with the often spectacular natural settings of the United States. Yet as a small-town kid he is also used to being bored, feeling alienated, or “doing crazy shit” (as he put it in a 2014 lecture). His early experiences have poured into his oeuvre of the past decades, which comprises highly detailed figure paintings depicting slightly absurd scenes of everyday life in the countryside. The seven works in his recent exhibition “Natural Selections” show Attoe shifting focus, bringing the experience of nature to the fore.

Visitor Center with Pines (all works 2016) depicts a one-story building in a natural setting, a kind of portal with an elevated roof pierced by horizontal rays of light, behind which we can glimpse what looks like a natural park, the work conjuring a sense of supernatural wonder. The play of light is just as significant in other paintings, defining the mood of each one, albeit in less dramatic ways. A subtle glow illuminates the valleys between the mountains in Landscape with Free Time and Money. Bright sunlight pours down in Beach with Cliff, in which some tiny figures play around in the sand. Attoe’s technique of using thin layers of transparent color, affords him a wide and differentiated range of expression in handling luminosity. All his paintings are basically orchestrations of two main contrasting colors: blue and yellow. The same hues are visible in each work, but in a variety of combinations and tonalities.

What role do humans still play in this scenery? Written words, sometimes emanating from the characters’ mouths, remind us of daily conversations. A tiny female figure next to the visitor center remarks EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT—perhaps she is trying not to be overwhelmed by the feelings of awe caused by the spectacular light. In Mountain with Stage, a majestic view of a mountain appears as a scenery flat, lending distance to the landscape experience. In the lower part of the painting four actors, framed by curtains, occupy a stage. I CAN’T CONCENTRATE, one of them says. IT’S OKAY NOBODY CAN, replies another.

Technically, the brushstrokes are at times loose, the figuration less precise and controlled compared to Attoe’s previous work; drips are part of how a tree looks. While in his earlier paintings an ironic and detached worldview was hard to miss, in these works it becomes a question mark: How ironically should we take these natural wonders? Or are they really and truly sublime? The works contain moments of alienation, a sense of absurd loneliness, and yet they seem to spring from an authentic appreciation of nature. The disparity in scale between the tiny humans and their surroundings seems to tip the balance in favor of nature. The result is a feeling of melancholy. People are nature, one would think in such a setting, but they are also a species that says no to nature. They cannot help but think their trivial and neurotic thoughts. In the bigger picture, though—or so the paintings seem to say—our little cares are insignificant and transient. The paintings communicate a spiritual lightness unaffected by the psychological gravity or felt isolation of the people populating them. Nature is just too strong and inclusive for that. Attoe really has become a landscape painter.

Jurriaan Benschop