The Geography of Phenomena: Paintings by Kendra Larson
January 13 – May 13, 2012
Roger W. Rogers Gallery
Kendra Larson’s landscapes engage the grand tradition of using depictions of the land as a mirror to reflect our cultural attitudes towards nature, our sense of the geography of memory and identity, and our desire to see the epic of nature as an expression of the sublime.
Her paintings examine the nostalgic lens through which we view the mythical landscape of the West. These works, painted from photographs or sketches of actual locations in Oregon visited by the artist from childhood onwards, embody the idea of landscape as a reflection of personal memory. While they aim to record the physical appearance of the state’s mountains and forest, they also convey the sense of childlike awe and wonder experienced in wild places.
While their aesthetic is contemporary in terms of the use of color and the application of paint, the ethos behind the works is more closely tied to the 19th century Romanticism of painters like Caspar David Friedrich, and a belief that the sublime can be experienced directly and viscerally through solitude in nature. The complete absence of people and man-made structures in the paintings heighten the sense of the forests of the Pacific Northwest as a pristine Eden. She presents the landscape as an idealized, perfect and pure paradise: verdant, sublime and virgin. The paintings seem to give flesh to the childhood fantasy that one could be the first human being to set foot in an unspoiled land. There is an inherent paradox at the heart of the work in that this fantasy, pleasant though it may be, is at odds with the reality of the landscape. The forests Larson paints have been explored and fought over, logged and replanted, and carry the deep imprint of Native Americans who’ve lived in them for thousands of years. The fact that several of the paintings are made on wood cut from the forests she paints underscores this paradox. Larson’s work acknowledges the fact that Oregon’s largely urban population views the land as both a place for pantheistic contemplation and a commercial commodity.
Larson explains the monochrome background of her paintings as recording the physical geography of the places she paints, while the brightly colored designs in the foreground aim to document invisible phenomena like smells, sounds or even what she describes as spiritual or mythical elements. The abstract designs aim to make the invisible visible. Her goal is to create a framework within which two contrasting experiences of the land can coexist: the measurement and recording of scientific examination, and the sense of spiritual wonder the experience of nature’s grandeur evokes.
Larson feels that her generation, buffeted by political and economic uncertainty, seeks refuge in their nostalgic view of the landscape as a powerful and unchanging spiritual force and lynchpin of Northwest identity. No doubt it also evokes the innocent and uncomplicated pleasure of childhood.
Larson’s paintings depict the landscape as being both majestic and intimate at the same time. While the scope of the vistas in the background are grand, the details in the foreground are often fragile and intimate in scale. This fragility reminds us that the Western landscape, rugged and epic though it may be, is under threat. She points out that humans are prone to destroying even the things they romanticize.
Kendra Larson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art at Willamette University. More of her work can be seen at www.kendralarson.com
-Andries Fourie, Curator, Roger W. Rogers Gallery