Of art's three major subjects--landscape, still life and the human figure--landscape is most expansive.
The theme spins around the globe and into space, encompassing everything not enclosed by a man-made structure. Elastic definitions of landscape embrace representational seascapes and cityscapes. In abstraction, a single horizontal line converts a blank canvas into a landscape, while organic forms teem with references to nature.
For all these reasons, landscape as an exhibition theme is in desperate need of subdivision. "Scapes," at UC Santa Barbara (through Sunday), excises several centuries of potential territory by restricting itself to contemporary American painting. Without saying so, the exhibition of works by 15 artists also zeroes in on the new romanticism throbbing through the genre. But, having trimmed its scope to manageable dimensions, the show proceeds to confuse the issue by expanding into "views" of all kinds--"seascapes, urbanscapes, workscapes, mindscapes, even bodyscapes."
Any one of those ideas, enumerated in press releases and in curator Phyllis Plous' catalogue essays, is worth exploring in an exhibition. The overly ambitious exercise at hand, however, is a classical case of curatorial reach exceeding viewers' grasp. "Scapes" might have worked if it were a well-balanced survey. Instead, it concentrates so strongly on updates of traditional landscape that works veering off most sharply in other directions look like misfits.
Most obvious of these are Randy Hayes' life-size cutouts of athletes and other figures. Beautifully drawn in vivid pastel on paper, but unfortunately snipped out and placed under reflective plexiglass (also cut to contour), these characters' connection to the exhibition is a mystery. More important, they seem so pretentious that they undermine Hayes' considerable talent for expressive draftsmanship.
Still, given the theoretical problems of "Scapes," the show is surprisingly gratifying. That's because Plous has uncovered several unfamiliar artists and chosen works of high quality, both from them and better known painters.
David True, an interesting artist too seldom seen here, is represented by both his crisp, emblematic work of a few years ago and recent, more painterly canvases. As his style changes from graphically stunning images to brooding ones, his paintings lose none of their impact. His new rolling hills and towering boulders are charged with as much mysterious energy as the wild seas and wind-blown palm that grabbed attention a few years ago.
Charles Garabedian is at his best--and most good-humored--in bright canvases that take a modernist approach to landscape by unifying disconnected motifs from nature in a flat, collage-like structure. None of Garabedian's eccentricity is here, just joyously mature painting. Robert Ackerman's darkly romantic abstractions are equally fine but for different reasons. Landscapes emerge almost as much from the mind as from the eye as we scan his midnight views, extruding deep brown suggestions of hills and clouds from elegant black surfaces.
Artists such as Ackerman deliver almost pure aesthetic experiences, while various others dip into social issues. Fred Escher, for example, makes prickly paintings, chock-full of overlapping patterns and intimations of danger. One untitled work crystallizes the sense of dread in a view of a fenced field of tents. Behind them a fire rises in peaks all across the horizon and in front lies a path of footprints that fall with the weight of army boots. John Hull's airless, blue-gray paintings also are overhung with gloom, but the rural incidents they portray are no more ominous than a vehicle breakdown or a bonfire.
Mark Innerst, a much-talked-about artist, shows a group of small, luminous, silvery paintings that recall old photographs and resonate with art history. Elizabeth Murray's and Bill Jensen's churning abstractions invite multiple readings. Her works are buoyant constructions, built of odd-shaped canvases overlaid with organic, painted forms. His are muscular, highly textured close-ups of vortexes.
In addition to paintings by a roster of artists including David Amico, Gustavo Ojeda, Jody Pinto and Gillian Theobald are Jon Kessler's zany, mechanized tableaux. His "Rockville" construction pits a plastic caveman against a toy dinosaur, their illuminated silhouettes seen through a milky sheet of plexiglass. And finally, Robert Gober presents three slide shows predicated on the idea of one painting dissolving into another. Don't ask me what that has to do with scapes--land or otherwise.
The controlling idea behind "Scapes" seems to be the painting of "states of mind," but that concept applies to all painting that goes beyond replicating nature. It's not enough to note a "shift toward a more speculative and visionary sensibility." What we need is a circumscribed and penetrating analysis of that shift's manifestations.