Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Nature Loud and Clear in Caro Nilsson’s “A Way of Seeing in the Anthropocene”

Caro Nilsson, “Red Castle,” 2021, oil and gouache on canvas, 36 x 30 in.

Several decades ago the words “A stone, a leaf, an unfound door” opened Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel , suggesting that a rock and a leaf had as much importance as a door — or that a secret and invaluable door or truth could only be found,  reached, via the guardianship of nature. Caro Nilsson’s paintings, now at the Main Gallery of Salt Lake’s public library, join this quiet quest: she calls her landscape paintings (most of them acrylic and gouache, sometimes with embroidery thread added, on canvas) “slow wanderings.”

“The Red Castle,” one of her largest paintings in this show, showcases an enormous and long-existing rock formation, with a dropped-in-an-aquarium-for-a-backdrop kind of beauty. Blue water below it, and almost equally-brilliant blue sky above it, frame the kind of mountain or rock formation which draws people to Utah and the southwest, and keeps them there: its reds charged and passionate, its discovery long ago surely some traveler’s gambler’s luck.

“Counsel,” a triptych of paintings, asks the viewer to take the temperature of their emotions as they study three boulders: one, with many tree-shadows; another, with fewer tree-shadows; and, last, a boulder with no shadows at all — just sitting lonely, plain, heavy and brilliant in the sun. 

Caro Nilsson, “Trees of 500 East (study),” 2023, gouache, watercolor, colored pencil, graphite on paper

Nilsson, who has degrees from the University of Virginia in both art and architecture, and thus would be keenly aware of arguments between things in the landscape natural and non-natural, also paints city trees which have suffered, cut short by power companies to allow electrical power lines to stretch uninterrupted. These paintings — “To Witness a Slow Waltz (500 East)” and “Trees of 500 East” are her most powerful paintings here. Each tree’s natural candelabra-shape is subverted by hasty surgeries: branches emerge like sideways-candelabras at sides of all the trees — their growth become grotesque, but unstopped. They look a little like the long-suffering gnarled, short olive or trees in summer Provence in Van Gogh’s paintings, his trees which looked to be in both pain and old age, hunched over, sprawling, like people with canes. Or, these trees of Nilsson’s look to be suffering as almost all fruit trees do, their over-burden of heavy fruit-bearing sapping most of their energy and subverting their natural grace and beauty. But these trees are not heavy fruit-bearers: they have become, cruelly and accidentally, hunchbacks. Overhead, in Nilsson’s paintings, electrical lines (the reason for their truncations) soar on in beautiful triplicate-line measured arcs, undisturbed.

Caro Nilsson, “Errands Before an Audience (2700 South),” 2023, acrylic, gouache, embroidery thread on canvas

Nilsson’s tree-love continues in “Errands Before an Audience”: you quickly guess that the painter, in her car, while running errands, enjoys the guardian trees lining her road; she feels they are keeping her company, even somehow enjoy her passing by them. Every one of the trees on the car’s right, in the painting, is gently turning toward the car, the driver; their boughs and tips look, as tree branches always do, like graceful arms and hands, even almost applauding the driver, silently thanking her for passing their way. Yet, trees on the left of the road, in the painting, turn — every one of them — away from the driver and the road: they look like a row of dancers yet to reverse themselves and face the other row of dancers. Lesson: trees may care about us, on some level, or we hope they do: but no human is ever to be completely their dance-master.

Two curiosities: in Caro Nilsson’s triptych titled “Threshold,” the sun, in one of the paintings, is a bald, plain white, slightly whittled-looking, a little like a partly-sculpted rock, as if it were wishing it were a planet, without all the sun’s unending duties. And, in “Cottonwood Curve,” Nilsson’s mountain-tops are as fluorescently-colored by the sun (hot flamingo-pink) as the asphalt street is fluorescently-painted (brilliant yellow painted-on road-stripes). Whatever we do, however intently and chemically we do it, says this painting by Nilsson, we never can outdo our sun’s fire-blaze, its fervent sunsets; we’re loud, but nature is stronger, louder.

Caro Nilsson, “Cottonwood Curve,” 2021, oil and gouache on canvas, 24 x 36 in.

Caro Nilsson: A Way of Seeing in the AnthropoceneGallery at Library Square, Salt Lake City Library (4th floor), Salt Lake City, through Apr. 21

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2 replies »

  1. I was pleased to learn that 15 Bytes would be covering Caro Nilsson show at the City Library, and even more so when I learned that Rebecca would be undertaking the tasks. When I saw Nilsson’s works while assessing that of her gallery partner, John Sproul, I saw at once that while her subject matter (desert and rural landscape) was familiar, her mode of presentation was highly original and accomplishes some things not seen before. In particular, the way Nilsson presents Alpenglow on the mountains and the trees on the verge of a highway should set her audience off on their way to some fine, new viewing.

  2. Had never till today known there is a word for that ember-charged twilight light—Alpenglow, or “Alps glow.” An “atmospheric optical phenomenon” when “the solar disk, the Sun, is dipped below the horizon”—will be looking for it now ever after—as Nilsson already does—

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