While carrying out his pivotal role in the early days of Modernism, Cezanne found time to set a precedent for one of its characteristic exercises: in sixty-some paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire and uncounted tabletop arrangements of apples, pears, bowls, and bottles, he showed that an artist can paint essentially the same subject over and over, seeking to wring from it every nuance of visual experience that its component parts can provide. So it is that Kurt Nicaise and Peter Goss has each taken a finite set of elements –pigments, forms, colors, and gestures for Nicaise, photographers’ conventions and choices for Goss — and rearranged them according to a limited set of self-made rules. The results recall the linguistic principle that a finite number of words and transformational rules can produce an infinite variety of sentences. Since paint provides more permutations, Nicaise’s panels are richer and call forth a greater range of feelings. Goss, who chose to work with the capacity of photographs to store information and make associations, evokes fewer, more cerebral delights with, for those so inclined, a powerful and at times eerie sense of dislocation in time.
Despite the confusion that his adoption of the vocabulary of modern abstraction seems to have caused some commentators, Nicaise stands squarely in the landscape tradition that stretches from Claude Lorraine through Claude Monet to the present, and these works recall one of the sub-titles of Stravinsky’s masterpiece, the Rite of Spring, which the Modernist composer called The Adoration of the Earth. There’s more than a hint of ritual and magic in the painter’s decision to build a ground for his paintings out of earthen materials: sand, mortar, and wood ash among them. Seen up close, these materials give the surface a 3-D contour that is part plastic modeling done with the brush, part naturally variegated, sparkling color, and part richly evocative textures—smoke, rock, fabric — that come about accidentally in the encounter of paint and ground. They are full of the solitary painter’s private joy: the pleasure of total immersion in craft. They are also full of exquisite discoveries for the thorough viewer who takes the time to stand close (too close for most museum guardians to abide) for eyes to wander over their surfaces and into their illusive depths.
Walking down the center of the gallery, though, it’s possible to miss this experience and see only a sequence of what seems at first to be repetitive canvases built from saturated whites, grays, burnt oranges, dark blues, and blood reds that are layered and streaked to form deep, primordial atmospheres or murky seas. Interpretation is optional, but the sense of space is inescapable. Over these depths float a narrow range of geometric shapes, primarily disks and circles, rectangles, and vertical or horizontal lines. For Cezanne, these shapes were the analytical skeletons of things seen: the structural actors of a visual drama. But just as scientists have broken down the atoms that make up matter into even smaller, interacting particles — quarks, neutrinos, and so on — so Nicaise explores the components parts and characteristic behaviors of Cezanne’s atoms. His disks tout their boundaries or brushstrokes; his circles reveal the tools that drew them. Rectangles are strokes this long by brushes that wide. They are also often the origin of the lines, which turn out to be drips. Because made by gravity, they are always parallel, but not always running down the canvas. Sometimes they rise weightlessly, and at others they run across like so many horizons. Gravity, though, appears to be a primary subject.
There are two themes present here. Nicaise works on several canvases at once, so these may well represent the results of two separate adventures in the studio. The larger canvases are single and are numbered in a sequence collectively titled Earth Sink. Smaller panels are shown in pairs, also numbered, and are titled Spirit Rise. The relation between each pair, which Nicaise considers a diptych, is variable. In “Spirit Rising 1” they merge into a single composition, in which yellow disks rise from the lower corners and float up towards the top center. More often, though, the two panels repeat the same general composition closely enough to recall stereo photos, which are familiar as the ubiquitous accessory to nineteenth century tourism, but are also part of the vocabulary of science. Thus in “Spirit Rising 2” a blue line rises from left to right in the left panel, then steps down between the panels and repeats the gesture on the right.
Modern painters tend to minimize frames, preferring that their works be seen as objects with edges rather than as windows into another place. Nicaise means this palpable edge to tell us how he envisions the work: not as individual constructions so much as parts sliced from some larger, continuous field. He calls them “excavations;” he also refers to them as “journeys.” Both terms resonate with time, with a feeling for its role in creating the earth we know and stocking it with artifacts for investigation. The craft of painting, then, becomes a metaphor for geologic and ultimately cosmic processes. It’s not a claim Nicaise makes for himself alone. If the concept is more important than the visible product, as Modernism believes, then the process means more than the form it creates.
The echoing of images that is implicit in Nicaise becomes explicit upstairs, where photographs by George Edward Anderson are paired with images of the same places taken a century later by Peter L. Goss. Anderson was a peripatetic studio portrait photographer, a staple character of the frontier known by his wagon and tent, who settled in central Utah and undertook to capture more than mere appearances. In an effort to penetrate deeper than the grainy, black-and-white surface and the formal pose, he often posed entire families, sometimes with iconic accessories, outside their houses. Goss has located surviving buildings from among the body of work Anderson left behind, and shot new images that as closely as possible duplicate the conditions of the originals. Some of the structures are little changed, while others have only barely survived. Most argue the impoverishment of modern life: wooden trim and fretwork, like lawns, were imports that fared poorly in the desert and proved costly to maintain. Thus a stunted, blind-eyed limestone pile that I used to pass every day in Manti started out as a charming cottage, festooned with an elaborately ornamented, two-story porch.
While the all-but universal disappearance of fences might signal a friendlier or more secure populace, it too probably has more to do with economics. Taste is another matter: Ellen Harmer’s house may have been a plain cracker box, but it had a soft-spoken dignity that disappeared when a later owner added a pair of raised eyebrows in the form of out-scaled, architecturally meaningless brick arches. Not that either Anderson or Goss passes judgment, though. The former seems to second the pride-of-ownership manifest in those folks, lined up in their Sunday best, who successfully transplanted their lives into the wilderness. In Goss, arguably what we see is how much those qualities remain as human constants through the passage of time and the alternation of circumstance.
One major problem photographers face might be thought of as their medium’s indifference to its makers: to them. Viewers tend to look right past the photograph to see what it depicts. A documentary photographer like Anderson relies on point of view, in the broadest possible sense of the term, to make a personal statement. Goss, by placing himself at the service of Anderson’s originals, echoes the earlier man’s devotion to the subject, but gains the upper hand by forcing us, as viewers, to contemplate the circumstances in which both men worked. He not only elevates his work above mere record keeping, but gives Anderson a new vitality as well—in much the same way as the various inhabitants of these antique homes have given them new life. Finally, the survival of so much specific detail, in the face of changes that reveal the passage of time, allows us to come as close as we probably ever will to time travel.
Time has retained its mysteries while much of reality has yielded to the advance of human knowledge. While we may never understand what it is or how it works, Kurt Nicaise’s topographic narratives and Peter Goss’s twinned moments allow us to hold time in our minds, to imagine the past we can only imagine and see how it continually creates the present: the only thing we can truly know.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.