A Comparison of Abstract Landscapes: From Realistic Representation to Intuitive Voice

by Pamela Bendio

A landscape artist must start with the descriptive scene before him: trees, fields, water, mountains, buildings, and other elements that capture a particular place and moment in time. The accurate depiction of these landmarks makes the view recognizable. Underlying the faithful representation of the outer form is another layer of reality. A non-objective abstract artist transcends the obvious replication of form and instead uses his skill to explore the energy, spirit, or feeling of what he “sees” by giving an intuitive voice to that underlying layer of awareness. We too should be able to enter into this insightful reality with clarity through observation of the artist’s choice of medium, composition, line, shape, color, and value.

Comparing the work of two American artists, McChesney: born in 1913 and Woelffer a year later in 1914, we can see how both artists have selected to portray a landscape as a non-objective abstract, leaving logical reality and instead, communicating a relationship with a more instinctive or mystical realm. Individually they have used a similar limited palette of colors: gold, black, white and red in the medium of oil on canvas to share the feeling or essence of the places they were familiar with. Here the similarity of choices diverges. The spirit or energy of Mexico provided McChesney with a different experience than Woelffer had in Italy. Each artist needed to find a way to express that particular awareness with an intuitive voice.

In 1952, Robert McChesney painted his abstract landscape titled “Mexico B14” in oil on a large, 42 x 58 inch, rectangular canvas in the landscape format. The painting is dominated by swirls of irregular organic shapes and earthy colors of gold, deep red, and black. These colors appear translucent in some areas and more opaque or denser in others. Black flowing linear designs seem to appear and disappear under these colorful forms, depending on the application of the paint, giving a sense of movement and depth. The canvas is noticeably divided in half by vertical lines just to the right of center. Less obvious is an “X” pattern where colors at one end of the diagonal are reflective of the colors at the opposite end. The top and bottom of this painting also show a similar reflection making it feel balanced. In this open composition, both colors and shapes seem to move off the edges of the canvas. The application of color is so flowing that there appears to be an absence of brush strokes. The unprimed canvas is left exposed in areas providing a background of contrasting white. McChesney uses a brighter gold and adds a stronger presence of dark red than is found in Woofer’s work.

An island off the coast of Italy and the city of Forio became the subject of Emerson Woofer’s abstract landscape in 1959 titled “Forio”. This painting, also done in oil on a rectangular canvas is 46 x 35 3/8 inches. It was done in a portrait format. Strong vertical, horizontal, and diagonal strokes made with a wide brush form a deep black textured square sitting above the painting’s center. A small white square sits inside the black square, also above its center line, but it was added while the black paint was still wet and thick - becoming impure in the process by picking up the darker pigment. It vies to be the focal point with the monumental form behind it. These geometric shapes are surrounded by an expanse of gold painted thinly over a gray primed canvas - which cools the tone of the whole piece. Similar whitish shapes were also dabbed into the gray/gold beneath the commanding square flanked by black ones below them. Smudges of gray and drops of black are seen above and below the main focus. Only on close inspection does one notice the small band, at the top of the painting, of a lighter color and bright gold strokes that look similar to Arabic writing. The contained composition is bordered with a thin line of dull red.

The combination of the artist’s selections allows McChesney’s “Mexico B14” to pull us into a panoramic view swirling with the heat of unbounded passion and a shadowing of shifting unrest over a parched reality. There is a visceral and raw sensual feeling about it. We become aware of movement, as if we were above the earth and seeing clouds moved by the wind across the sky in shape-shifting streams of color with the earth sometimes visible and sometimes not. McChesney accomplishes this by the use of flowing colors swirling across the canvass and past its edges giving it an unbounded feeling from an atmospheric perspective. The unpainted areas of the canvas remind us of a land so parched that nothing grows there. The bright gold against the red creates the heat of passion. The black pigment moves over the brighter colors in a disturbing way which speaks of unrest. The vertical lines to the right of the paintings center resembles a spine and the organic shapes described by the linear designs below it embody a pelvis while those above give the impression of cascading hair - all of which when seductively draped in transparent reds and black give the feeling of sensuality and passion – of blood or the essence of life. The movement is communicated by the linear designs being seen under the transparent colors and then lost under the denser areas. More subtle is the movement portrayed in a crossed diagonal pattern creating a dynamic oblique relationship to the whole of the composition. This same technique that provides movement also gives the painting symmetry which at once makes the vista exciting, overwhelming, and livable.

The artistic choices make by Woelffer in his landscape, “Forio” takes us to a disturbing place of isolating and repelling darkness which looks to be as much the prison-fortress as Alcatraz Island. Overall, there is a depressing, deadening, almost menacing or aggressive feeling. Goodness or life essence itself seems to be swallowed up in this dark place. It is as if the artist was warning us that you must know who you are before coming here or you could get lost. The horizon shows a glimmer of brightness and energy which is at once close enough to see but still too distant to touch. Woelffer accomplishes this reality with minimal art. The heavy application of paint inside the sharp exterior angles of the large square creates the feeling of aggressiveness. The blackness lends itself to a deadening and a heavily depressive atmosphere. That this dominating square sits above the center of the painting gives it a disturbing, off-balanced almost floating sensation. It also lies under the horizon line and that makes it earth-bound. The echoing of this placement, of the white square within the black, acts like an exclamation point to this statement. The tainting of goodness or the depletion of life force is depicted by the application of the white on wet black paint so that the purity of the white is diluted and almost overwhelmed by the assimilating black pigment. This theme continues in the juxtaposition of smaller whitish shapes being trapped between the large black square and the smaller, but powerful black ones below them. The gray/gold spreads itself around the prison-fortress in its coldness, firmly establishing the impression of isolation. That notion is reinforced by looking to the horizon where the bright city lights on the coastline depict the gaiety or energy of its nightlife which can be seen in the distance but not partaken of.

The landscape that McChesney experienced and gave voice to and the one that Woelffer shared with us - gave expression to the energy or spirit of what they saw and felt. Those impressions guided and shaped their individual choices of medium, composition, line, shape, color, and value. They have invited us step out of our comfort zone, to see reality at a layer that at first seems unfamiliar to us, because it has been stripped of realistic representation. The sensitive place inside us deciphers this layer with intuitive recognition. If we have not been to that geographic location, we can easily recognize the emotions that these paintings convey and in an instant, we can “see” what these artists saw and “feel” what they felt, as if we stood beside them – observing with them!

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