Although landscape may be the signature subject for Utah painters, there are as many approaches to painting the land as there are painters who paint it. Many of these approaches derive from straightforward methodology, revealing nothing more than the rocks and the hills and the sky being painted. And then there are other approaches that defy traditional definitions and do something different, attempt something new.
The key words do, and attempt are optimal in a description of the work of painter Jeff Pugh, whose work does more than is expected of traditional landscape and whose work attempts to accomplish something more than a conventional landscape might suggest. Pugh’s landscapes are ambitious, they are successful, and they are true in their accomplishment of so much, within the space of so little — the work of gestalt, an attainment of much more than the totality of the composite parts of a whole might suggest.
Pugh’s works are noted for their jarring and irregular linear quality. Anything but the smooth and crisp quality of traditional painting, Pugh’s works are carved out with his palette knife in a distinctive and characteristic manner. “There is a certain imperfection that occurs when the viewer can put back together fragments of paint that are nothing but square dabs of a particular flesh tone that is nothing more than a value, a smudge of paint,” says Pugh about his the effect of his technique, “but the person ends up seeing this as a finished piece.” Pugh recognizes that his work has a high level of abstraction, so he stops short when it is suggested that he is also a Realist.
Yes, Pugh paints landscapes that construct or delineate, invent or articulate, but regardless of Pugh’s professed methodologies of abstraction, he works on the level of a Realist, responsive to the reality of his subject as art and not illusion. Pugh is under no delusion that the tree with the angular outline broken up into fragments by linear areas of differentiated light and dark is an illusion of what one might see along the pond at Liberty Park. No. Pugh is acknowledging the truth in the tree that is irregular and is heavily shadowed, although Pugh uses this substance as structure and like parts to the whole, makes a play of the shape, the line, the contrasts, and the geometrical shapes created within the tree when light is broken by darkness.
The acknowledgement of Realism in the academic sense of the word is the first step to the consciousness of significance in the measure of gestalt in Pugh’s work. Gestalt is the ultimate designator of meaning and context to all of Pugh’s efforts and the identification of Realism in a shadow of a bush that has no gradation, that is pure shape, that is starchy and irregular, a shadow that is about principles of design more than it is about the shadow of a bush, this Realism is the first step towards realization and recognition of the fuller measure of what Pugh’s works amount to be.
In Pugh’s “Farm Houses,” the two barns are flat planes of crimson red with no intimation of depth between them. Each has a blue-gray tin roof, which in academic analytical formalism distinguishes its recession by difference in tonality between planes, which otherwise juxtaposed will appear flat. The horizon line is resolutely flat, supporting trees that nestle the barns. The sharp precision here between light and shadow with many spaces of both creating distinguishable squared shapes is much in the manner of Maynard Dixon, a Modernist. Very much like Dixon are Pugh’s sloping hills beyond the barns. Dixon painted planes of shape with differentiated hue and tone. He created, for example, foreshortening, but would use segments rather than shading for depth. This is exactly what Pugh is doing with the hills: we see four distinctive ribbons of color alternating between violet-blue and sable brown. The mind understands the blue as recession but the eye sees a flat hillside broken up into shapes of structure. This is a Realist approach to a subject and the use of form in that context.
According to Pugh, when asked about the responsiveness between artist, viewer, and art, he states that, “If you are interested in a photo I am doing, you might as well just look at the photo, but if you want to know how I’m feeling about the subject in the photo, then you are going to have to look at the painting.” According to Pugh, his work is a reflection on himself and how he is feeling at the time of execution. Thus the abstraction that is so much a part of Pugh’s work is the kind that is infused with a personal subjectivity, detected in his very approach to painting. More than any source of meaning in the art of today is the expression of the subjective.
Pugh states unabashedly, “I am a huge proponent that there is God in everything. This includes the division of thirds; the golden mean, in the landscape, in a face, everything about anybody is divided into the golden ratio. Applying that same idea, that principle into my paintings, I think it goes beyond logic into a religious belief, of what I do and what I do with it. There is a reason that I pick the structures that I do.” Further and of even more interest, “If you start looking at these paintings, the root of something like a barn, can be representational of human life, it can be representational of structures of safety, it can be a representation of hard work, or any number of things.”
Here, we find that the basis for Pugh’s composition and every compositional element within the composition is something sacred to this artist. Further, the elements he uses attribute further meanings, all being truth to Pugh, and all having a universal significance. Pugh has synthesized perfectly the formal reality of the very substance of his work with his most deep-seeded core beliefs. Even more current today than the merely subjective is when the subjective synthesizes so seamlessly with the form, with a new emphasis on form, and this is exactly what Pugh is achieving as “the totality of the composite parts of a whole might suggest” becomes so much more.
Consider “Fine Dining,” a formally tight painting that is activated by meaning personal to the artist. At the flat horizon line one third down, is the base of a barn, again a flat plane, a brick red. Around the barn are full trees, though sparse in number. These are painted with bold vertical smears of the knife lending a jarring linearity to the crispness of the composition. The main feature of the painting and truest to the heart of Pugh are the centrifugal presence of five cows. Cows? Yes, cows. Pugh, the ever-expressive symbolist, would not typically use his family as a subject in one of his now famously iconic abstracted scenes, so instead, he paints a cluster of five cows, two larger and three (the number of Pugh’s children) smaller. But there is nothing derisive about this symbol. The cow ubiquitously is a beloved animal, a provider of many things, a nurturer to its young, and a deeply spiritual creature in some Hindu cultures.
Pugh is nothing if not a provider, a nurturer, and a deeply spiritual and stalwart individual who is on his own path of truth. “My works are all representations of some aspect of my life,” he says, “whether it’s a stormy painting or one with billowing clouds, I know ‘a storm’ is coming. Yet we’re all huddled working together. They all have a context to why they are painted as they are.” In this sense Pugh’s works succeed magnificently on this level as gestalt for what they appear to be formally and for so much more that remains open to the viewer’s exploration and for Pugh’s enjoyment as an artist to work experimentally and experientially for his sake, for our sake, for art’s sake.
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.