Alfred Lambourne . . . from page 1
Lambourne was an artist of many talents who began his career in Salt Lake City as a designer for Salt Lake Theater. He migrated with his family from England after they converted to Mormonism, arriving in Salt Lake City in 1866. Among his friends he counted the Hudson River School artists Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, regional painter James T. Harwood, and photographer Charles Roscoe Savage. He was facile in drawing and painting, including writing early in his career as yet another artistic expression. While his oeuvre stretched beyond Great Salt Lake, it is in the lake we find Lambourne’s passion.|1| Walking through the splendid exhibition on view at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, The Savage Poem Around Me: Alfred Lambourne’s Great Salt Lake, one may wonder who Lambourne intended as the audience of his lake paintings. Today, we are fortunate to be that audience.
Donna Poulton, the museum’s Curator of Art of Utah and the West, has assembled an exhibition that draws us in through beautifully preserved examples of Lambourne’s drawings, gouache, oil paintings, and books.|2| Each work is relational, complementing neighboring pieces, imparting a true sense of Lambourne’s talents. Some exhibitions can be appreciated no matter which work is viewed first. My recommendation is to follow Poulton’s lead and start at the exhibition’s entry room. Relying solely on Lambourne’s visual art and writing, no additional didactic panels are needed to appreciate the progression from the entry’s larger-than-life reproduction of Lambourne’s cabin on Gunnison Island (from a private collection in Oregon) to the small, stunning painting at the end of the exhibition.
The entrée includes a few of the fourteen books Lambourne wrote, here specific to Great Salt Lake.|3| His major tome Pictures of an Inland Sea (1895; 1902) was published in final form as Our Inland Sea: The Story of a Homestead (1909), which Poulton drew upon for exhibition wall labels. Another publication, A Glimpse of the Great Salt Lake is also included in several editions, one open to a page depicting one of Lambourne’s lake “Mirage Effects.” Book pages with their black and white illustrations may not initially draw viewers interested in color, but take a closer look. The exhibition’s tempera and gouache works were created then used as book illustrations. Displaying original grisaille (gray) paintings with their book counterparts provides us with excellent examples of Lambourne’s encompassing thought process.
Lambourne’s books may be considered art objects, yet his writing is the art of the transcendentalist. He provided factual information on the lake from his nineteenth-century vantage point, then departed into sentences curled around the emotional language of awe and wonder. His desire— and success—was his ability to draw the reader into a realm only he could see. Consider this passage from Pictures of an Inland Sea (1902):
There is another phenomenon to be seen at infrequent periods on the Inland Sea, one that is unpaintable, and also, I believe, entirely local. It is to be witnessed during the calm summer twilights, when the pale, fairy-like tints on the water are breathed upon by opposite currents of languid wind. As they interplay in bands, in points, in shifting isles of amber, azure and rose, the whole surface shimmers and glistens like a silken robe studded with countless pearls.
Also included in the entry room is Lambourne’s small ink work, "Valley of Great Salt Lake" (1866). It imparts modernity in its quick, clear lines, which come alive under Lambourne’s mature hand. As Poulton notes, this drawing was created not when Lambourne was sixteen, a budding artist, and new to the valley, but later, to accompany his Deseret News publication The Pioneer Trail (1913).|4| Lambourne wrote of the event he had so beautifully captured in ink: “Not one in our company but what felt the heart swell with joy as the sight of fields and orchards, in the latter of which hung ripened fruit, burst upon our sight.”
The rest of the works in the exhibition are paintings, varied in color, style, and mood. The horizontal orientation of Lambourne’s canvases echo the flat expanse of the lake, occasionally broken with vertical thrusts of mountains and precipices. There is an interesting rhythm to the way Lambourne constructed cliffs and walls of rock, revealing a consistent, underlying structure in geologic formations.|5| Lambourne relished familiar motifs: water, sky, cliffs, boats, and birds populate his works. An occasional person can be spotted, but they never serve as the focal point. Lambourne’s paintings have as their focal point something more nebulous, found in the rhythmic winds and occasional turbulent waters of the lake. It was motion and life embodied by the lake, I believe, that drew Lambourne to paint it over and again.
Black Rock formation on the south end of the lake was a region Lambourne favored. Poulton has placed three paintings of Black Rock next to each other, each showing the formation from a slightly different angle and mood. Not noted in the exhibition, but definitely noteworthy, is the recent restoration of the painting "Black Rock, Great Salt Lake" (ca. 1880).|6| According to UMFA’s Facebook page, this work was “selected by the UMFA docents as the recipient of their 2012 Docent Conservation Fund Award. This award allowed the painting to be shipped to and treated by the Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Arts (WCCFA). The need for treatment had been previously identified as part of an earlier docent conservation fund sponsored paintings survey, also completed by conservators from the WCCFA.” The painting is depicted half in its original state and half digitally restored in the Facebook post; seeing the actual painting in its full restoration is a highlight of the exhibition.
The evening glow of the Western sky is particularly vivid, almost garish, in "Sunset on Gunnison Island" (1882).|7| One may assume Lambourne heightened and exaggerated the lake’s sunsets to the realm of the otherworldly. Today we may equate our Kodachrome sunsets to particulates and air pollution. If the sunset’s colors are a contemporary phenomenon, how did Lambourne “see” the same colors we witness in the western sky? His paintings show us what the Native Americans who lived around Great Salt Lake knew: the lake’s atmospheric inversions have always occurred in some form, due in part to a combination of the lake’s evaporating waters and its high altitude.
My familiarity with Lambourne’s work was tested by the unexpected. There is a small canvas at the end of the exhibition, remarkable and unlike the other more polished lake paintings. Everything about "Untitled" (1880s) is different: the canvas is more square than horizontal; the paint application is looser and more impressionistic; the boats and people found in other paintings are absent.|8| This is raw nature, a little scary and rough, with rocky precipices reminiscent of the darker views from Romantic era landscapes. Lambourne’s paint application appears emotive as he depicts the emotionally charged sky bolstered by the blazing sun. The work of the American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) comes to mind—an artist who, like Lambourne, straddled the shift from nineteenth to twentieth century, from realism to more emotional and abstract modernist tendencies.
Lambourne’s unabashed adoration of Great Salt Lake is refreshing. I relished slipping away in time, thoroughly immersed in paint, color, motion, and emotion. Lambourne consistently layered paint, atmospheric effects, and influences in his lake paintings, taking us back in time through works that embody a specific time yet show influences and allusions to a new world just around the corner. Great Salt Lake has been a subject of deep fascination for hundreds of years, and will continue to be so in upcoming exhibitions at Utah Museum of Fine Arts this winter and spring with contemporary art regarding Great Salt Lake. Until then, enjoy this fine view of our inland sea from the nineteenth century.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
A Natural Idiom
Connie Borup's Waterscapes at Phillips Gallery
Waterscapes by Connie Borup opening January 17th at Salt Lake City’s Phillips Gallery once again demonstrates the power of resurrection. Not just the renewal of nature, but the regenerating endurance of Borup’s idiom. Working in oils on medium-sized canvases, Borup continues to explore nature, and how little we really know about it. Not only are we treated to numerous paeans in the finest of details, but are constantly reminded of how many visual surprises are hidden in the most unsuspecting of places.
At the heart of Borup’s work lies a fascination with natural process and the cycles of nature: the yin and yang of life. Rich with pathetic fallacy, the works show us a world of tumult and repose, brutality and recovery. Exemplary is ‘Water Journey’, which shows a gently sloping beach, half bathed in water. The fluid is completely transparent, giving us a direct view to the riverbed and its mottled lodgers. These consist of an assortment of smooth and rounded pebbles that are strewn across the waterbed, landing in chance positions like dice on a gameboard. The ovoid forms are contrasted by several sharp twigs, which jut into the scene at odd angles, adding agitation where once there was none.
‘Watery Resting Place’ presents a similar scenario as the tangled branches of an overflowing shrub pour out over a waterway and drop their leaves onto the water’s surface. As they drift along, some float away while others stay and idle, perhaps as a parable to the unpredictability of life. Not only does this foliage guard darker recesses of the underbrush, but serves as a harbinger of color, in creamy beiges and greens. In addition, leaf shapes lose their depth, becoming elliptical and lacrymal to evoke Japanese screens. Whereas some of Borup’s works use water as a window onto subterranean worlds, it here serves to reflect a gloomy, overcast sky.
Borup’s images are often situated at transitional locations, where water meets land and adaptation is required. In particular, the artist’s iconography feeds off expired plant life and the resulting decay: the retreat of leaf color and the draining of pigment. Here, stems and branches become splintered and prickly, yet are swiftly remedied by the healing properties of water as the source of all life. In these instances, the harsher effects of nature are mitigated by the interplay of light and water and its dual role as window and mirror. Such is the case in ‘Dancing Reeds’, where a hillside of reeds has been ravaged by a long, dry summer. All of the plants have expired, their leaves bent in cruel contortions, forming peach and cream arches. In the foreground, a still blue pool reflects the plants, translating their curved leaves into jagged, lyrical patterns. The pool’s pale blue and gray hues contrast the warm brick colors of the red rock background. A cluster of plants emerge from the middle of this puddle, showing a Nietzschean perseverance in the fine green sprigs sprouting from their base.
A similar resoluteness is seen in ‘Glassy Echoes’, where a dried bush defies gravity by growing horizontally above a body of water. Hovering just inches above the surface, the bush makes us marvel at the architectural tenacity of its achievement. Most of the curved branches grow skyward, while a few are downturned, stroking the water like fingers. Bleached by the weather and drained of all pigment, most are chalky white, while a warmer orange hue clings to a few remaining sticks. These weave their way in and out of the lighter twigs, forming a lattice through which the blue-grey water can be seen. While the actual branches possess a gently curving shape, they adopt a more irregular motif in their reflection. Here I can’t help thinking that the interplay of water, wind and wood not only mirrors our own existential predicaments, but at times, the folly of human endeavor in general.
Perhaps the most dramatic of this series is ‘Tree Reflection’, where the view is limited exclusively to a reflection. Pictured is a tree of uncertain origin, with branches twisted into the paths of Rorschach inks, inviting prophetic interpretations. Forming an intricate lace not unlike a splatter painting, this is set against the ripples of a small periwinkle pool. Saturating our vision, Borup has chosen a fiery palette of crimson reds and oranges for the tree’s reflection. This conjures up sun flares, and the violent alchemy that set the landscapes of Southern Utah in motion. As we experience the tree in reflection form only, we are left to speculate on the original object that inspired this doppelgänger. As such, the work invites parallels with other reflecting pools, and their capacity to misrepresent and deceive. Cautionary tales which expound on the illusory nature of life, such as Plato’s Cave, also come to mind. More reassuring is the use of the mirror by Perseus, which functioned as an aid to overcome demons.
Just as we think we have Borup pegged, ‘Pond Disguised by Leaves’ sends our thoughts into new directions. In this work, water plays a dual role of mirror and window, while incorporating new elements of the environment. Here we see a shallow pond, bordered by two masses of tiny, lanceolate leaves. These flank the water, like golden curtains on either side of a stage. The water inside is still and reflective — like a sheet of glass. In its mirror, a bright gray sky is captured. This is contrasted with the dark silhouette of a nearby tree. Where the shadow falls, a view to the pond bottom is seen, carpeted with pebbles and sludge. Still and cold, this is the birthplace of northern mythology, where Ophelia was laid to rest, and where the Lady of the Lake retreats.
Works such as these not only remind us of the nuances and complexities that can be found in the most unassuming of nooks and crannies; more importantly, they expand the parameters of Utah landscape painting which, subject to market forces, often descends into cliché. Replete with mirages and shadows, mirrors and windows, screens and symbols, Borup’s works reveal secret worlds — both real and imagined — that inspire a renewed return to nature — and art.