Edmund Burke, at the height of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, an era defined by learning and the intellect, began to look at the wonders of nature and considered the value of human sensibilities, not merely as means for scientific or artistic investigation, but for their own sake. In 1757 he wrote a treatise, that along with the writings of Rousseau, Kant, and painters who looked to and saw beauty in the ruinous Rome, launched the fervor of the Romantic era. “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” was one of the seminal texts of the 18th century, and introduced into enlightened society the notion of the sublime.
We can arrive at a colloquial but genuine understanding of the sublime in its original Burkean context as we look and see the work of artist Anne Albaugh, currently on display at 15th Street Gallery in Salt Lake City. That sublime is generated by the artist’s passion, intense sensibility to her subject, her process, and her vision of humanity.
In our day, the concept is highly misused and its meaning largely diluted. It has been generally reduced to allude to a greater or more astonishing beauty, something truly awesome, or something of exceptional measure. The dimension that gives the word its gravitas has been lost. Burke elucidated in his treatise, “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”
The storm, or tempest, is a classical sublime subject, and one that attracts Ann Albaugh in canvas after canvas, especially the storms of the deserts of southern Arizona desert. Albaugh makes yearly trips to visit a sister who has lived there for 15 years. “They have monsoons at the end of June, June is the hottest month, so the first of July, that’s when the water comes, that’s when the water ‘happens,’ and the storms and the moisture come out of Mexico and it creates these unbelievable storms,” she says. “That is what I like to paint. I like to paint the changes; they’re beautiful but at the same time they’re scary.”
“Stoner Ranch Road,” whose colors shine from the white walls of the 15th Street Gallery, is an intense evocation of a storm and an intense evocation of the sublime. The bold clashing of icy white and blackened blue creates a sense of grandeur that is awesome in its sense of physical wonderment; the gravity of the colliding of forces, the elements in a battle of dominance over the skies… it is a magnificent sight to behold. But there is something too magnificent, too grave, too wonderful, too awesome, too bold. As “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other,” it cannot take it all in, and there is an uncanny dread of what lies beyond ourselves, and we suddenly feel very small. As looking at the sky, the universe at night, when looked at a bit too intently, can be a bit overwhelming, this is what makes Albaugh’s work sublime, and a little scary.
Another image might be less frightening, but the sublime cannot be contained none-the-less. “Not Scott’s Road” is an equally large canvas that is equally, for the most part, a section of foreground and a large expanse of sky. Says Albaugh, “The foreground, although important, is basically a sense of place. Without the relationship, without each other they would loose their sense of place. They go together. It is important to have scale. Primarily it is about scale. My foregrounds give my storms scale. Without the foreground you have no scale.”
Although “Not Scott’s Road” is less of a tempest than any of the other canvases, its scale is still imperative: the foreground gives the sky the completion of dimension it needs to be read accurately and definitively as a great expanse, sometime around dusk, as the colors are changing and the sky, towards the distant horizon, is ribboned into cottony white, steel blue, violet blue, rose pink, and pale aqua. Even without the presence of a storm, the great expansiveness of natural wonder, made immense by the scaling of the foreground, is enough to fill the mind with wonder to the point that a certain sense of unease might begin to settle, the beginnings of the feeling and awareness of the sublime, ever-present in nature to the perceptive and astute mind’s eye.
More abstract in the sense of the elemental, and more easily redolent of the sublime, is the more reductive and minimal “Arroyo.” Here, a vast unearthly desert reaches up and over the low horizon, as an arroyo carves its way through the land. This vastness is imperative to Albaugh, who says of the stormy clouds above, “Without that, we don’t know where it [the storm] comes from, we don’t know how big it is, what’s going on. They move at such speeds, and they change moment by moment by moment. In one minute you’re going to have a whole different look.”
And all of a sudden, without consideration to storms or to scale or to the purity of the hues she uses, Albaugh introduces another subject and says emphatically; “Think about these people. Think about this desert. They come out into this, and they bring their children, and with two-gallon jugs of water, they set out to walk 100 miles into the desert, and it breaks my heart [speaking of those on the other side of the border trying to reach this side].” And as she says these words Albaugh’s eyes are red and tears stream down her cheeks and I begin to wonder, “What are the origins of the storms Albaugh is so impassioned to paint? What is the reality of the sublime in her work?”
A final masterful composition of color and scale and the sublime, is the immense and conflicted sky of deep arctic blue, pummeling against a counter-balanced force of billowing white in “Mountain Meadows Dunes.” Beneath is a shallow foreground of clay colored sand dunes. With a cleaner horizon line, this might easily be an impressively accomplished work of abstraction, but the subtle sable gray shadows of the dunes, and small patches of gray breaks of sky in the drama overhead, give this painting a distinctive and powerful subject. But what is even more powerful are the sensibilities of the artist who created it, so tied to her art, one wonders how it can it be simply a formal relationship?
It is life’s drama that keeps Anne Albaugh compelled and her art sublime. She sees storms in life where others don’t. Her sensitivity to those that are literal manifests itself on canvas to a level of reality that achieves the sublime, in a realization transcending what can be comprehended. Albaugh faces reality, and she faces the storms, and she does what she can to make the world a better and more beautiful place for those she is able to reach, and those whose sensibilities she is able to touch. She is an example of a visionary and a realist, and an honest artist who feels deeply, but is unafraid.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.