It isn't easy now to make art about landscape. Western movies, Wyeth barns, calendars and postcards have made our land look corny. Vacation snaps are boring. Cunning modern artists who wish to hymn Wyoming, Texas or New England, must deal with or dodge a million deja-vus. That hasn't stopped them.
The Henri Gallery, 21st and P streets NW, is now showing landscapes by Washington's John Van Alstine, a sophisticated sculptor. Not so long ago he made himself a curious 2-D easel, a line drawing in steel. He took it to the mountains, the farm belt and the prairies, stuck it in the ground and photographed it there.
These pictures trip us up, play tricks with our minds. Are they flat or deep? Rigorous? Romantic? Are they meant to conjure the pioneering ghosts of Bierstadt and Moran who went West to paint the mountains a century ago when the mountains were still fresh? Van Alstine's color photographs all ask knowing questions about sentiment, perception, the convention of the frame and the history of art. But that is not what makes them work.
What makes these pictures beautiful is the beauty of the land.
The snows Van Alstine shows us are not gray with soot; the horses are not tethered. His hay bales and corn stalks, sun-tipped peaks and rainbows, are conventionally lovely. That easel in the landscape does more than make us think. It frees us from embarrassment, lets us see the land afresh.
Van Alstine is best known for his stone-and-steel sculptures that, although abstract, are as formal and evocative, intellectual and pretty, as the photos here. Van Alstine, who is not yet 30, teaches at the University of Maryland. His show closes Thursday.
The two artists now exhibiting at McIntosh/Drysdale, 406 7th St. NW, also love the land, its forests and its farms, its weather and its roadsides. Both of them employ modernist devices, and both of them have managed to make the same old song sound new.
Michael Davis, the gifted Los Angeles sculptor, calls his objects "Wedges." Imagine a wooden wedge, its sharp edge pointed upward, that's been placed upon a table and then stretched horizontally, as if stretched in time. Or think about a pyramid, finely wrought and hollowed, containing memorable treasures, that's been blurred into a streak. They look something like that.
Within their walls of sanded pine are fragmentary relics -- love letters and bones, nutshells, seashells, twigs. These relics suggest place. One of these strange objects, these semi-abstract narratives, employs corrugated steel, roofing felt and bottle caps that have been pounded flat. Part architectural model, part landscape and part reliquary, it somehow suggests the sort of sights one sees from the corner of the eye while driving through the desert. The straightness of the road is there, the flat wastes beyond and the sad, familiar shacks that stand beside the road.
Maud F. Gatewood lives in Yanceyville, N.C., and paints its landscape, woodpiles and cattle, woods and streams and snows. But she is no realist. Her rural scenes are filtered through modernist conventions: Her tree trunks are clean cylinders, her furrows are stripes of color. Her snowflakes obey not the wind, but the ruled diagonal. These are handsome, well-made paintings, but though they look advanced, their subjects are the subjects of motel-room art. Both shows close March 4.
The 52 oils of Reginald Pollock now at Jack Rasmussen's, 313 G St. NW, do not manage to survive the clinches they repeat. The show is called "The Seasons." The autumn paintings here all show trees ablaze with the colors of the fall; the winter ones are snow scenes; the summer ones are mostly a heavy spinach green. Nothing but technique protests these pictures from the mawkishness that afflicts most postcards. Pollock's technique is less that of a Hudson River Painter than that of an Abstract Expressionist. Or a finger painter. The formica-smooth surfaces he paints on let him slide his paint around, and he does it fast. This is hasty, hokey art. It will be on view through February.
The late Gustave Baumann, who died at 90 in 1971, made complex color woodcuts of "Spring Freshets," "Taos," mountain peaks and the farms of New England. His subjects almost never move beyond the conventionally picturesque. But his unexpected colors have a late Impressionist wildness (his skies are sometimes black, sometimes salmon or peasoup green), and his technique is truly touching. He cut his blocks himself, ground all of his own pigments, did all of his printing. Baumann, at the very least, was a master craftsman, and his mastery lends interest to his otherwise dull art. His show closes on Feb. 28.