by Craig Krull
I have always been drawn to the landscape. Of all earth’s creatures, we are the only ones for whom landscapes even exist. A landscape is simply a perspective on the natural world, which is based upon our unique ability to mentally remove ourselves from that world. Because of this conceptual separation, we are still trying to resolve our complicated and ever-changing relationship to nature and perhaps, this is the fundamental lesson implied in our expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
The mental equation of a landscape also includes another abstract human construct – beauty. Charles Baudelaire recognized this when he said that if “a landscape is beautiful, it is not because of itself, but through me, through my own indulgence, through the thought or the sentiment that I attach to it.”
Equally true is the poet Gary Snyder’s belief that, “our place is part of what we are.” Although we intellectually create the idea of landscapes, our surroundings also quietly shape us by influencing our daily patterns. Landscapes are not simply informed by an immediate response to the picturesque, but also by a slowly ingrained sense of place in the artist’s consciousness. When and where we live influences how we perceive and create landscapes.
The landscape paintings of Astrid Preston embody all of these principles. As a painter, Preston understands that a landscape framed in the mind’s eye is an abstraction, but that a landscape painting is a visual abstraction of that thought. Her work is allegorical, metaphysical, and sometime surreal in the traditions of Edward Hicks, Henri Rousseau, Georgio de Chirico, and Rene Magritte. Formal gardens of classic symmetry and neatly trimmed hedges in the shape of mazes not only reflect man’s desire for order, but also become symbols of his eternal estrangement from nature. As Robert L. Pincus suggests, “like all strong landscape painters [Preston] … realizes that the depicted scene is a territory of ideas.”
Preston’s landscapes are never peopled. They are empty, enigmatic stages prompting the viewer to anticipate the phenomena about to occur or which, like Godot, will never materialize. In her most recent work, however, the illusion of space is gone, and two dimensional forests fill the canvas from edge to edge. Rather than reinforcing the integrity of the flat picture plane as in Color Field painting, these confrontational walls of trees are like surreal mirrors reflecting the visage of nature. It is a face that we are still unable to recognize as our own.
by Michael Duncan
In Southern California, gardens spring up overnight, the products of warm weather, sprinkler systems, and rollout sheets of instant lawn. Thanks to a massive water supply and immigrant labor, a barren desert has been replaced with lush palms and burgeoning bougainvilleas. What Angelinos usually recognize as nature is a blatantly man-made construct. The city’s exaggerated manipulation of its setting perhaps helps explain the cerebral quality and conceptual sophistication of contemporary Los Angeles nature painting. Light and Space artists such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Mary Corse, and Marcia Roberts have transformed the effects of nature into subtly hued, experiential Minimalist art. Painters such as Joe Goode, Peter Alexander, Margaret Neilson, and Constance Mallison have variously analyzed our visual experience of the natural world. In her meditative, illusory landscapes of the past twenty-five years, Astrid Preston has similarly prodded and probed our assumptions about nature. Using light, patterning, and crisp juxtapositions as tools, her paintings present a complex notion of the idealized physical world. Although completely devoid of human beings, they are philosophical considerations of our visual perceptions that probe notions of time, perspective, and memory.
Preston’s recent works have moved into the realm of allegory, away from the oblique social commentary of her 1980’s shaped panels and paintings of suburban houses and lawns. The winding trail of Mountain Path (1989) invites viewers to contemplate an allegorical passage. Using sharp focus and a straightforward composition, Preston eschews illusionistic perspectival space, providing multiple points of view in the style of ancient Chinese and early Italian Renaissance landscape paintings. The work offers a hierarchy of spatial reverie in which the eye scales the shimmering path, slowly zigzagging back and forth up the verdant hill. The path disappears into the woods, reaching no particular destination; in this Zen forest, it is the journey that counts.
But the serene natural settings that Preston adopts are complicated by memory and experience. In Gardens of Solitude (1996), sixteen bubble-shaped views of other landscapes appear like portholes, seemingly piercing the surface of a manicured lawn and its misty, forest backdrop. The globular views suggest visions of alternate, contrasting gardens, perhaps variations on the scene from past plantings and other seasons or times of day. Like distinct glimpses through a zoom lens, the views vary from faraway to close-up, disrupting the tranquility of the dawn lit scene. Their circular shapes seem to assume the form of memories, providing evidence of the associative, accrued nature of visual experience.
Alternate visions also jostle for attention in the cluster of landscapes in Overlapping (1997). Battling for center stage, layered sequentially, the circular views crowd the frame, leaving no room for a background. Each orb represents an independent, concurrent realm. The assembled telescopic vies suggest a confusion of multiple realities, amassing into one extended, gurgling image-bubble. Each circular view only pretends to delimit or contain a world that clearly is bigger and more complex than any single peephole vision. Many of Preston’s works toy with the way we use regular geometry – usually rectangles and circles – to demarcate or regulate visual images. In several works, a central core rectangle is tinted or tinged in a contrasting color. This section is singled out as if selected for focus in a camera’s viewfinder. In Heart of the Forest (1991), a mid-section of dense green foliage is lit up with autumnal red, violet, and yellow. In Winter Journey (2000), Preston implies three unique perspectives on the same bleak misty scene by dividing the image into three geometric blocks, each tinted with a different hue. October Garden (2001) has a subtle bipolar structure, its left half tinted rust. Preston presents the world through rose – or yellow or blue – colored glasses, emphasizing the inescapable subjectivity of visual experiences as well as literally marking the limits of that subjectivity.
Juxtapositions of close-up and distant scenes set up a dialectic of sensory and contemplative experiences. In works such a Green Apples (1997), a tranquil landscape scene is inserted within a close-up study of clustered fruit. Painted with shimmering lusciousness, the ripe apples seem close enough to smell and taste, giving a strange pungency to the reposed vista that they frame. In Pears and Garden (1996), ripe, perfectly formed, pendulant fruit surrounds a high-angled depiction of a formal, complexly patterned garden hedge. The contrast enlivens the wonder of both the unblemished, ideal product of nature and the intricate, manicured product of culture.
Preston’s most recent paintings investigate the repetitive structure of landscape. Playing off the aesthetic form of the grid, a series of square, sixteen-inch paintings offers a partial survey of scenes and motifs used in her past works, including depictions of misty vistas, overhead forests, and close-up fruit. The square format establishes a regular rhythm, in a sense equating the works and demonstrating the limitless range of nature.
In New Growth (2001), Preston fills a large canvas with an overhead view of deep green fir-tops, sharply rendered without perspective as an all-over design. Light and shadow are the only variants, mottling the painting’s busy, nearly regular surface. Shunning usual notions of foreground and background in this dense overhead view, Preston implies an infinite vastness in the pattern of eternally verdant trees. With its imposing lushness, the painting is a quiet paean honoring the amplitude of nature.
Signs of decay, natural disaster, and the predatory cycles of life are absent from Preston’s idealized world. She extracts a range of pure aesthetics from nature, exploring Platonic essences in a wide variety of tones and fragrances, all suitable for metaphysical contemplation. Employing extraordinary draftsmanship and painterly skill, Preston creates idyllic habitations for the contemplative, feeling intellect.
by Cindy Milwe
Forget the slaughter by loggers,
the blazes of summer, the palm tree
that yellows, and dies in the yard.
Think instead of the birches
that line the long walk to the pond,
white-striped bark peeling back,
the inside rough as a dead cat’s tongue.
Go back to the copper beech
near the stone driveway –
the veined iridescence of its leaves,
and you climbing up and in.
Do you remember the sapling?
The buds of that new lemon tree?
Its fragrant white flowers, the hard
little fruits pointing up to the sky?
They’ll still show you everything
the world holds: distant fire of stars,
jet plane letters in fading vapor,
the hummingbird’s frenzy
before it lands on the ficus
Whose roots break concrete,
spread thick under your house,
weaken the ancient foundation.
But even this tree teaches,
wise as old men pruning
olive groves in Crete.
Even this tree commands us,
to keep our mute watch.