Tawni Shuler does landscapes. Memories of landscapes. Drawings of memories of landscapes. Collages of drawings of memories of landscapes.
Any art that’s four times removed from its original subject is in danger of being overdone. But Shuler’s work is less heady than it sounds—it’s more felt than thought. Currently on display at Oats Park Art Center in an exhibit titled How To Be Idle, Shuler assembles her own recollections of place into charcoal, ink and cut paper collages that are both interesting to look at and confident enough to reference—then outright reject—some basic rules of landscape art.
Where many landscape artists aim for reality, Shuler prefers truth in experience. It’s surreal instead of real.
“We don’t all experience place in the same way,” she said. “I’m interested in how our memories of these places affect who we are and how we move through the world around us.”
Places like her home in rural Wyoming, the Tongue River watershed, an unmarked spot where a killdear abandoned her nest—and the emotions that belong to these locations—are all subjected to the artist’s notes, sketches and first impressions in an attempt to assemble memory-scapes that feel about right.
Scale is another construct where Shuler deviates, choosing close-up views that still manage to read deep and wide. In the larger pieces, giant shapes resembling seedpods, or bones, or swollen spores, protrude as murky clouds of color and broken lines recede into the background. Just when you think you could reach your hand into that dark corner, thin strips of hanging paper push you back into the gallery.
The smaller pieces are more of a mind trip than a bodily experience, like still life paintings over landscapes, with vaguely fruit- and plant-shaped objects carefully situated between flat ink, cut paper and shadows of cut paper. Even without being representational, these pieces bring to mind the rotten fruit, flowers and skeleton still lifes of the Dutch vanitas tradition where each object is a stand-in for the beauty of temporal life and tragedy of certain death.
It’s all very dramatic if you’re a dramatic person, and maybe less so if you’re not. Either way, it’s hard to walk through the gallery without gaining an awareness of your own body in relation to the work. You find yourself sinking in and out of attentiveness with each new piece, adjusting your eyes—and your mindset—as you alternate between very large and very small images in close succession—kind of like memory itself.
“When you try to recall an event, generally you don’t remember everything … so what your mind is taking away are the most important elements,” said Shuler.
The thing that’s different about the way Shuler remembers these elements and the way we do is the practice she has set up to process them. At any given moment, Shuler is at least three things at once: a child kneeling and looking, a scientist selecting and reordering, a camera pulling details in and out of focus. When you do these things a thousand times, they become rituals. When you do them, think them, and feel them the way Shuler does, a dramatic person might call them sacraments.
Rituals, sacraments, daily life. Whatever name you give it, the most prized elements of traditional, romantic landscape—awe and reverence—are alive and well in the artist’s own practice. In the end, in the gallery, Shuler gets the sublime, and we get the subconscious.