Tuesday, June 23, 2009

REVIEW: Elizabeth Nelson at Maple Ridge Gallery

by S. Gulick

Several weeks ago I saw a postcard of a work by Elizabeth Nelson and the image on the postcard was of an enormous star-stuffed sky not like any sky I'd ever seen and yet capturing the play of light and dark that fills the heavens overhead on a clear moonless night and fills the viewer with an appreciation of the vast universe we inhabit and our place within it. I'm easily confused and had hoped to see this work in the flesh when I went to see Ms. Nelson's showing of landscapes at Nancy Reid's Maple Ridge Gallery at 1713 Maple Ridge Road in Newark, Vermont, through July 27. The painting, part of the permanent collection of the state of Vermont, is unfortunately elsewhere (at an exhibit of work from the State of Vermont Collection at River Arts in Morrisville). However the works which were in evidence in Nancy's warm and well-lit space did not disappoint. The expansive surreal skies and meticulously rendered lands below were one of several recurring themes which served to tie the works together. The individual works were strong, but several interwoven ideas also allowed the works together to support each other and make an experience greater than the sum of its parts.

These are landscapes, and Vermont country landscapes at that, and there are many images which evoke the constantly changing seasons that make life in the Northeast kingdom such a pleasure to observe. Among the unifying themes are roads, the sides of which converge and vanish in the distance; the massive impressionist skies which complement the detailed features of the landscapes below; and the interplay of field and forest, hill and valley which set the Vermont farmlands apart from places where flat land lends itself to industrial agriculture. There's a technical trick Ms. Nelson uses as well. She incorporates photographs into her paintings and matches the painted surfaces to the photographs. In some of the works the delineation between paint and photograph is easily discerned while in others it's a game for the observer to try to find the photo and pick out where it stops and the paint starts.

But in my mind there are a couple of dangers in this process. From a technical point of view, the photographic and painted media are different and could age differently. Colors which match when the paint is applied might look very different after a few years, and I would worry that the photographs might be prone to lifting from the canvas or the board on which they are attached. From an artistic point of view, this is after all a sort of sleight of hand, a trick, and there's a danger that the trick will distract from the choice of subject, mastery of media and interpretation of reality that the artist is presenting. The incorporated photographs are an interesting feature of much of Ms. Nelson's work, but there is enough consistency of theme and technique to hold the attention of this viewer without them.

A few individual works which caught my eye:

Choice is a panorama of not one but two roads disappearing into the future, with similar yet slightly different points of convergence. There's something vaguely schizophrenic about this picture. Perhaps it's the multiple vanishing points. I felt a little dizzy looking at it, as if I should be wearing special glasses to see the extra dimensions.

Summer Cottages, one of the few watercolors in a mainly oil paint show, inverts the surreal sky/realistic ground motif. The staid and stable cottages and trees along a lakeshore are broken in the foreground into a cubist kaleidoscope by the reflections from the ripples on the lake.

Tree Line (right) has a beautiful palette of the pastel colors that often infuse the monotones of the winter landscape. Faint touches of pink and green are emphasized by the background blacks and whites and greys. I found myself engaged in the game of finding forms in the clouds that one often plays and spotted a reclining pink kangaroo; my friend thought it was a rabbit but no bunny ever had a tail like that one…

Snow Road (above), another road vanishing into the future, is an affectionate rendering of the rutted roads that characterize mud season here in Vermont. There are some who would take exception to this portrayal of what can be a difficult two weeks in a Spring that seems to take its time coming here in the Northlands, but I feel every road is a lesson if you choose to learn.

The Maple Ridge Gallery is a bit off the beaten path, and I would advise those who haven't been there before to get good directions and not to depend on GPS to get them there. You can contact the gallery at 802-467-3238. But a little exercise in navigational skills will be well rewarded by a pleasant period spent in the fields and seasons evoked by Elizabeth Nelson's landscapes.