Tom Howard has a gift for renewing language through its association with landscape. His painting, “The Long View,” takes a once-useful phrase, worn out by too many years of metaphorical urging (largely in an effort to motivate listeners to do something people are just not good at — to take the long view and anticipate the future ) and returns it to its literal meaning, by invoking the deep satisfaction that comes with seeing something, whether God’s plan, Nature’s way, or some other form of fate, unfolding in the world rather than being violently imposed on it. “High Plains Drifter” is another metaphor, this one Western, and with a mean and narrow import, while Howard gives the viewer something both real and positive to grasp and appreciate: a cloud, high in the sky, passing over a bit of near-desert prairie, possibly a promise of rain, or at least shade. Both phrases come away restored by the association.
Presumably the last time there was a single landscape, it was the Garden of Eden. Since that first-ever eviction, there have been many landscapes: mountaintop, desert, arctic, ocean, settlement, city, and so many more. For each, over time, artists created a legend and provided skies and weather. The first challenge an artist may face is how far it’s necessary to travel from home in order to find a spot of sufficient beauty, history, or exoticism to fuel a fresh vision in a field crowded by sometimes, seemingly, too many suitors. The second challenge, of course, is to find a novel way of presenting it.
This is true, of course, unless the painter is willing to focus on the subject rather than thinking too soon about the impact of the art. Tom Howard paints the local scene, not so much giving it a sense of drama or metaphorical power as capturing an intimate appreciation for its actual presence in his life. It is, of course, likely to be the same landscape present in the viewer’s more-or-less daily life. Hickman Canyon, Sliver Lake, Sanpete County, and Skull Valley may not be everyday sights for all, but anyone who’s spent even a few years driving through the countryside, as most Utahans do, will recognize the names and, in the unnamed places, the ubiquitous roadside trees, lapsed farms, nearby mountains, and overarching skies.
How, then, to put one’s personal stamp on the image? Tom Howard paints it as though he were sketching it, as sometimes he may well be. But a sketch requires a light touch, is more than tentative but less than definitive. After all, this is common property, and in these paintings it remains available to further discussion. It would be presumptuous to ignore that skill with which he lays down his initial impression of the organic fractures and fragments that life and climate, each working to its own purpose, scatter around his scenery. Yet somehow, what emerges, while it clearly constitutes his Utah scene, still leaves room for another’s commentary. It’s like a conversation, and when he stops talking with his brush and looks inquisitively out from the canvas, it’s your turn.
Tom Howard, Phillips Gallery’s Dibble Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 13