Jo Peterson is a natural beauty

Artist's photographic drawings have reflective, dreamlike qualities

Size doesn’t always matter. The most powerful works in light dark near far, Jo Peterson’s exhibition of drawings on view at Sandler Hudson Gallery, are two small squares hung near the gallery’s entrance. The 6-by-6-inch “N.C. #3” and “N.C. #4” mix media, including inkjet print, vine charcoal and acrylic glazes. Bare tree branches dance across the canvases. They run like inky spills on paper and map every nuance of the tree’s limbs. Shadows from nearby trees fall behind, melting and fading into the foggy surface. The works are at once highly representational and abstract.

The larger mixed-media works “Prairie Creek #1” and “Prairie Creek #2” are equally dramatic. Peterson employs a range of tonalities to create the effect of light filtering through trees. She vividly captures the moment of being alone in a sunlit virgin forest. The artist’s palette of grays imbues her landscapes with richness and balance. That nearly all the drawings are based on photographs is evident in their variations of grayscale and cropping at the edges.

There are times, however, when it feels as though Peterson is gazing through a camera’s viewfinder rather than observing nature directly. The effect is a postcard-like flatness that dilutes the images’ overall impact. Peterson simplifies and smoothes the physical aspects of her landscapes, making them overly schematic and somewhat decorative. She clearly has the talent to articulate a more complex view of nature, as evidenced by her small works. Her reliance on a photographic approach, however, makes the work too much about pattern.

Nature can be brutally destructive one moment, and the next, a place of solace, inspiration and renewal. The use of photographs lends a softness and stillness to Peterson’s drawings that belies nature’s violent side. Because of this one-sided vision, her work sometimes becomes more of a traveler’s record of a vacation than an artist’s revelation about the natural world. But when Peterson engages head-on with nature, her drawings become redemptive, reflective, and dreamlike.

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