Throughout the history of art, and painting in particular, two subjects are omnipresent: the human figure and the landscape. The human figure attracts the eyes of artists for reasons that should be obvious: We’re a very vain species, and we’re all attracted to human bodies for one reason or another. But what about the landscape? Why do landscape paintings continue to appeal to artists and art lovers after all these years?
New Ground, the current exhibition at Reno’s Stremmel Gallery, explores the tradition of the landscape painting from the perspectives of four contemporary artists, Len Chmiel, Dale Livezey, Charles Reid and James Shay, about what’s probably art history’s second most popular subject. (The human figure is certainly more popular, because—and it can never be said enough—we’re a very vain species.)
“The first thing you look at is dirt,” says gallery director Turkey Stremmel, glancing down at her feet. “You’re around one landscape or another your whole life, on your way to work, when you travel, whenever. Everybody looks at landscapes.”
Shay paints his landscapes with casein paint and works the surfaces with colored pencils and X-Acto knives. Shay worked as an architect for many years, and his paintings have careful, precise, geometric compositions—though the scratched and marked surfaces have a frantic energy. The overall effect is close in spirit to mid-20th century abstract art, with the added bonus of evoking landscapes, particularly deserts and mountains.
“Shay’s landscapes are obviously Western,” says Stremmel. He uses a color palette that should appeal to any Nevadan—many different shades of brown.
Livezey’s paintings are more representational, with a warm, glowing palette. His landscapes often feature more sky than land, with carefully controlled gradations of color. For example, the colors in the sky seem to move from, for example, dark blue to bright gold so seamlessly and naturally that it almost looks like a real sunrise.
Chmiel paints with thick impasto, globs of oil paint popping off the canvas. His work makes for a nice contrast with the paintings of Shay and Livezey. Where their work seems most effective on a large scale and viewed from across the room, taking in the whole picture, Chmiel’s work looks best up close and personal, with nose nearly touching, so the viewer can see the different textures and colors.
Reid’ work is even further afield from the other artists. Whereas the others paint big landscapes, Reid’s work seems closer in spirit to another tradition: the still life, with the landscapes often a secondary. The relationship between still life foreground and landscape background is often what makes these paintings interesting. Whereas the others use bold colors—of one kind or another—and oil paints, Reid uses light, airy colors and many of his paintings are watercolors. (He has published books on watercolor techniques.)
One reason Reid’s work might seem so vastly different from the other three artists is that, while they’re all Westerners, he lives in New England.
“The light’s different there, as is the landscape,” says Stremmel. She also says that it makes to have an exhibition of landscape art in Northern Nevada. “Our area has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.”