Portrait of a Landscape

by Nancy Grieves

Nancy Grieves, First of the Year, oil on canvas, 48" x 32", 1998.


In the corner of our backyard, my husband built my son a club house. It is one of those things parents do as much to fulfill their own childhood fantasies as for the sake of the child. My son had adorned it with billowing sheets that stirred the imagination. It reminded me of a strange and magical sailing ship. Now I would paint a picture of it. Alone in my backyard, I spent days analyzing and absorbing what I was looking at and the image on the canvas. I felt an intensity for my subject far greater than going out and looking for things to paint that meant nothing to me. My entire identity was my family and my home. Now I was expanding that identity in my desire to be a painter. It was a point at which my life and art became inextricably intertwined.

I began to study painting seriously at San Jose State in the early 1990s. One semester I took a pleine aire painting class. I wasnt really interested in painting outdoors as much as I was in the opportunity to study with Altoon Sultan, an American realist landscape painter. For the three years she was at San Jose State I considered her my mentor. Over the course of the semester we went to several sites: from the gritty Reid-Graham industrial complex off I-280 to the more idyllic Alum Rock Park. The process of lugging paints, canvases, and easels around is exhausting, but necessary. There is no alternative to understanding light and atmosphere other than to observe it at the source.

My first attempts were extremely difficult. In contrast to the immediacy of painting outdoors, the position of the sun and the clouds are eternally changing. The illusive play of light and shadow, no matter how subtle, transforms everything within its path. Within an hour, the tree that I was looking at appeared quite different. It took tremendous motivation to overcome my inadequacy in the face of this dilemma. The need to control had to be suspended in order to simply respond to what I was looking at. The marks upon the canvas looked woefully inadequate, even ridiculous, until I took it home. Away from the source, I could come to terms with it as a painting, separate from the reality I had witnessed. In these early, crude depictions a dead tree in an empty lot, picnic tables in an empty park I saw a transformation that intrigued me, something mysterious, and at the same time, personal.

For homework, Altoon required us to paint something close to home. I think I sensed even then the significance of this opportunity. I lived in a little tract house northwest of Gilroy with my husband and five-year-old son. When we first moved there, the neighborhood was new, surrounded by barren, desert-like land. Beneath the relentless valley sun, we planted every tree and shrub, every blade of grass. I put my heart and soul into it. To me, it was a work in progress, life imitating art.

Nancy Grieves, New Neighborhood, oil on canvas, 60" x 30", 1998.

As I began to paint in my backyard, I discovered a dialogue between the world and myself, one that is the very heart of landscape painting. The high level of detail in my painting is itself a metaphor for the philosophic complexity of the world. Things are not always what they seem to be. I paint reality and at the same time I realize that no matter how real it looks, it is a distortion. I am one person with a single perspective. I consciously and unconsciously bring to my art the accumulation of all my past experiences. I see what I want to see. This psychological predisposition is what is most strongly evident in my art. It is the basis of personality through which everything else filters. When it is done, I have imposed my interior reality on the exterior world.

In January, I stand behind the sliding glass door and stare into my backyard. The dreariness of the day, bare trees, leaves littering the lawn, the anonymity of the surrounding neighborhood, mirror my mood. It is at times like these that I feel powerless, ambivalent toward my fate. I am tempted to reject the reality of my existence. In spite of myself, I am conscious of other sensations as well. There is a quality of loveliness to the air, a kind of pearly light. The color of the grass glows in contrast to the rich umbers of the rain soaked fence. In the distance are softly rolling hills shrouded in fog. In spite of myself, there is something I care about in all this, something I want to express. I wish to connect to the world for its own sake. Suspended between cool detachment and intense focus is a sensation of being in the moment. Psychological, as well as circumstantial elements emerge at a more subliminal level. Everything is what it is, nothing more or less.

My paintings produce a kind of visual silence that evokes a sense of isolation, even alienation. Empty space, offset by certain objects, i.e. a fence or a house or a tree, evoke simultaneous loneliness and intimacy. It is a necessary solitude in order to embrace ones own perceptions. It is the thing that sets the artist apart. To me, certain things in the world seem to possess innately enigmatic qualities. A dialogue takes place between the neglected apple tree in the corner by the fence and the little lemon sapling nearby. There is something mysterious in the way the trees cast dark shadows over the sparkling blue pool in summer.

This intensified way of envisioning the world goes beyond realism to a kind of hyperrealism. I paint with analytic concentration resulting in strongly rendered forms. My way of envisioning the world is further enhanced by a poetic expression of color. When I painted a warm night in June, the sky felt like this most beautiful deep, cobalt blue, in contrast to the street lamp casting orange and garish shadows on the lawn.

What sustains me as an artist is the idea of experience. The act of painting is a conscious choice in the desire to investigate and authenticate what I know. What takes place is a dialogue between an interior, psychological reality and the reality of my existence in a given place and time. I conceive of a painting as a glimpse into my world. Instead of a formally accessible notion of composition and space, the viewer must orient herself to my particular point of view. This underlies the idea that philosophically it is impossible to convey, much less completely understand, my reality.

Time is important also, because nothing stays the same. Perhaps that is why landscapes often seem inherently nostalgic. There are visual metaphors everywhere. In my back yard, the neglected apple tree and the young lemon sapling evoke feelings having to do with aging and youth. On the other hand, trying to paint a shadow that I know will be gone in a few minutes emphasizes the importance of living in the moment. These are some of the things that I think about when Im painting. For me, landscape painting is a way of being in the world. "

Nancy Grieves is a recent MFA graduate from San Jose State.
She lives in Gilroy, California with her husband and son.

Artists in Relation to the Landscape

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