Even Nowadays, the Revised Impact of Wilderness Art
Creating rural art that gets intimate with earthly things a long ways out of cities or suburbs is a challenge in terms of connecting with the viewing audience. The specialized wild plants known to trail hikers or wild gardeners as trademarks of a place are still, if not for all time, aliens to probably most urban folk, for whom roses, tulips, irises, daisies, pansies, orchids and other cultivated flowers will do when flowers are called for to convey symbolism or a grace note. If I'm painting puccoons on a swath of prairie or the fringed polygala on a clifftop behind Lake Superior I'm in some other emotional territory, I think, till a new urbanite gets out of a vehicle and discovers this very kingdom. A burst of wonder may have set the same soul on new paths for all time to come.
The same is true for paintings that include birds, native small reptiles or burrowing mammals--a person familiar with these must habitually venture off roads and trails, looking down, listening, eyes trained to detect slight movement. The urban majority are strangers to these little earth-dwellers, and every bit as much to the names applied to them. And what about landscape? It's one of the best-selling genres of art, but in order to sell, it has to beckon the beholder out of everyday places and into the picture with inviting aspects that feed some kind of longing. For cityscapes no doubt the same is true. But just as the earth has places that repel entry by the bulk of our own kind, the mind has analogous realms; compare earth's frigid and windswept, or sultriest, most entangled places with hardly a safe foothold or zero shelter and the mind's regions of poorly-illumined or outright horrifying thought. What is the appeal of landscape art (or seascape) that touches on these mental zones for many viewers? But the symbolism of landscape/seascape/cityscape also has the power to attract into those very zones. Since abstract art depicting nightmare visions has a following and a market, I wonder how that market compares with the market for lifelike landscapes, true to a real region down to the very characteristic plant life, that reveal an interplay of loneliness or desolation between artist, subject and public. Does landscape art that seems as if it has little allowance in it for human comforts dissuade most buyers? Maybe or maybe not. But some part of it has to be familiar; I think of the heavily-photographed wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park or the expanses along the Trans-Canada Highway. Below are two mixed-media watercolor landscapes that speak of U.S./Canadian peat bogs or similar wetlands, areas of some economic (industrial) value and forbidding mud, winter, humidity and mosquitoes, that never-the-less address a yearning for places empty of human conflict, where nothing stops the wind or interferes with nature's regenerative cycles, where wild animal sightings tempt those who yearn to see rare animals of legend. Both works are on display this two-week run at Vine Arts Center in Minneapolis.
The above work is recent, the bottom one dates to the 1990s and bears, embedded within the art in small black hand-print, a lyrical chant about discerning good or cosmic creative force apart from evil, the destructive force. Both pieces speak to a type of soul, I think, that embraces the whole earth, maybe even preferring the stretches called wastelands, wilderness, barrens, desert. Since nothing much changes on a vast scale in those places they have an epic quality with soothing overtones.
Here where I'm sitting, the sun just burst out of the gloomy grandeur of horizon-to-horizon clouds and I feel pulled outside for a brisk walk along the roads which have become mud and little else.
I'm at work lately on the mixed-media watercolor, shown below, in which a city wraps around the back of a boggy foreground true to north-central Minnesota, eerie in all the browns, reds and bone coloration of the off season, traced with the ghosts of little-recorded goings-on over eons past. In the process of composing it I've considered the grip of landscape on ourselves and how to define differences, all told, between three types: the urban-rustic, the agrarian, and places still reminiscent of wilderness, which reveal little to no human impact. A day outdoors in any of these settings can offer all the same degree of engrossment and serenity. What the most open of lands offer, especially those that call up visions of the original wilderness and still harbor big carnivores like wolves and cougars, is the illusion of being singular, a favored part of nature, a lordling at the top of the whole obvious food chain. A person savoring all the privacy the intensely rural region allows may often weigh personal loneliness against a sense of enchantment by all the inhuman things that fill the senses. Evidence of the electronic surveillance that pervades our culture is out of sight, out of mind to a degree not true in built-up places. Since the remnant of other mammals we have decimated have, in their considerable intelligence, learned to avoid our awareness the person in the country is left seeking out evidence of them, and their stories cut off amid the detritus of trees and the suggestiveness of empty nests, burrows, tangles and rock piles. We begin to understand a preoccupation with ghosts as a network that shaped and still characterizes this place we live in.
But if they're looked upon in the city, these completed works of art may just send a two-fold message: of anachronism, but also of living, transferrable potential for what lives among us, if balances between human lives and non-human, warm-blooded or cold-blooded, prove the ultimate purpose of Creation.