Familiar territory

Landscape show at Sandler Hudson skims the surface

Like “family” or “masculinity,” it’s hard to even breathe certain words nowadays without implying some kind of critique.
Invoke the word “landscape” in a contemporary art context and it is likely that something revisionist and probably cynical is implied. The landscape once stood as metaphor for human possibility — unspoiled beauty, the promise of adventure, limitless freedom. But we have become far more skeptical about the nobility of human progress as rain forests and indigenous cultures suffer, and pollution, overcrowding and Frankenstein food follow. The notion of landscape has altered dramatically since the days of the Hudson River School Painters, Timothy O’Sullivan’s pictures of America’s 19th century, and even Ansel Adams’ relatively recent glorification.

The Landscape: Revisited (Again) at Sandler Hudson is a survey of landscapes from the miniscule to the macro featuring the work of four women artists who take topography as their priority.

For the most part there are no real revelations here about the impact of a newly ordered landscape in our lives nor are there any startlingly new perspectives, though there are strengths in individual works.

Operating within this new, more jaundiced view of the landscape, The Landscape: Revisited offers something more than beauty but less than deep investigation. With exceptions, the show tends to rely on amorphous alternative vantages of the land as in Misty Bennett’s hyper honed-in views. Bennett’s paintings and pastel drawings could represent the sensuous natural caverns, crests and rivulets in the Earth’s surface, but they might just as easily be the curvy lines of a cyclone, a sofa or the center part in a man’s hair.

Bennett works best when her work is vague and carries a hint of menace, as in her pastel-on-paper drawings where the eye is drawn into a dark void, suggesting a sinkhole or cavern. This air of mystery is doubly emphasized in the quartet of chalk-on-paper works — “Irrigate,” “Conductor,” “Inversion” and “Flute” — whose frames and white mattes create double vortices as the eye falls into the strange lands of Bennett’s work.

Judy Jones’ paintings on paper are equally ambiguous, but with little of the ominous ambiance that accompanies Bennett’s work. Suggesting aerial views of fields rendered in rich, muddy colors, works like “Future Tense” picture land broken up into neat parcels but further deconstructed with lines and circles. Jones’ landscapes look flayed and analyzed, with the inclusion of those weird lines and circles giving the work a layered effect also seen in Emily Diehl’s ghostly mixed-media silkscreens of trees and fields.

In works like “And Four Years of Drought” and “Still,” Diehl bleaches out and obscures the landscape with an overlay of milky white. Diehl has allowed brightly colored lines of yellow and green paint to intrude on these blanched landscapes, as if to suggest a surveyor’s mark or some artificial outside presence creeping into the wild.

That self-aware overlay of color is echoed to some extent in Teresa Bramlette’s large 48-inch-by-96-inch, crudely rendered oil paintings on wood, which depict construction sites in a fracas of clutter and outrageously artificial hues.

But Bramlette’s more refined and interesting project is also the only work in Landscape to revisit the idea of “landscape” in a conceptually notable way. An element of the tongue-in-cheek comes out in her decision to depict scenes of tumultuous destruction via the ethereal technique of watercolor, a form more likely to render the weeping willows, black-eyed Susans and babbling brooks of a sentimentalized view.

Instead of such delicate landscapes, Bramlette uses a trio of small 7-inch-by-10-inch watercolors to record the demolition of an enormous vintage red-brick building. The final image has plumes of smoke rising from the toppled building in ice creamy yellows and pinks and blues as if nothing more than a pretty sunset had occurred. Self-conscious about how our vision of the land has changed, this work is the only one to engage with a revisionist notion of landscape in a show that flirts with critique but never quite addresses why that term has become so problematic and parenthetical.