Our relationship with the land is an ancient one, one as old as civilization. One device we have invented to navigate this connection is landscape painting, a genre dating back several millennia. As we approach a situation in which the delicate balance between ecologies becomes increasingly untenable, we ask whether the genre can survive and lead us into a more sustainable future. These issues are raised in a mural by Nancy Andruk Olson, who is currently artist-in-resident at the Bountiful Davis Art Center.
To be sure, Olson’s mural does not showcase the wastelands that have come to characterize the Anthropocene, nor does it school us in the perils of industrialization. Olson’s vistas are the antithesis of those dystopias. Blending references to past and present, they hover between two historical moments, two visual regimes. On one hand, many of Olson’s references are rooted in nineteenth century painting. With a horizon line that swings in and out of obscurity, references to William Turner (1775-1851) are unavoidable. Throughout Olson’s compositions, any discernable boundaries between land and sky are erased, and are connected by great curtains of light, each feeding into each other, as if composed of the same physical energy. Even among substantive subjects (trees, rocks, etc.), colors bleed across contours, their edges dissolve and atomize into nearby life forms, suggesting the life-cycle itself. Similarly, the diminutive role of human and animal protagonists is also steeped in the Romantic tradition: a pair of rabbits, a flock of birds, an embracing couple: all are dwarfed if not entirely enveloped by a world that suggests the epic dramas of John Martin (1789-1854).
Augmenting these devices is Olson’s palette, which rejects any references to naturalism. Applied in lively, van Gogh-like brushstrokes, Olson’s colors are neither realistic nor symbolic. Mixed by the artist and applied in watercolor, Olson’s hues are supersaturated and range from the hyperreal to the fluorescent, creating worlds that are as intense as they are ethereal. Exemplary is a sloping field with undulating grasses, which spills down into a pond, where vermillion branches graze the water’s surface and reeds protrude in acid limes and greens. Elsewhere, hillsides are teeming with fluorescent pinks, searing crimsons and solar golds, emanating light in every direction. The spectacle is equally daunting where cascading rapids capture the eye in ultramarine splashes and azure breezes. Clearly, these pigments depart from nineteenth century sensibilities. They are more in line with the digital palettes of David Hockney’s “Yorkshire Landscapes,” made on the artist’s iPad, or even Pippilotti Rist’s “Pixel Forest.” A minor distraction can be found in the tiny couple engaged in unholy acts: the gendering of a woman in pink and man in blue could be described as ‘binary’ as their union blossoms into a magenta and heliotrope grove.
While Olson’s iconography strikes a balance between past and present, her scenes are not easily placed and the locations remains a mystery. Olson’s topographies make no overt reference to the artist’s home state (Utah) where mountain, desert and red-rock languages reign supreme. In contrast, Olson’s locations are not intended to be identified; she is interested in what she calls “the memory of landscape.” As idealized, other-worldly oases, hers are a wish-fulfillment of world. Ignited by nostalgia and longing, her idylls can only be described as “Paradise.” Olson’s landscapes are not about seeing, they are about imagining.
Nancy Andruk Olson: Because I Am Still in Love With You at Bountiful Davis Art Center through July 17.
Alexandra Karl was educated in Ottawa (BFA), Munich (MA) and Cambridge (Ph.D), where she wrote a dissertation on the role of Darwinism in 19th Century German painting. She has been reviewing the Visual Arts in Utah since 2012 and is a proud member of AICA. She was a lecturer in the Humanities Department at Utah Valley University from 2017-2019. Links to her essays can be found at www.alexandra-karl.com.