Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Into Plein Air

by Drew Martin

The other day I rode my bicycle by some powerlines in my town in New Jersey. It doesn't sound very picturesque but they are not the kind of powerlines you would associate with bleak sci-fi landscape and brain cancer. The imperfect poles are tawny, rough-hewn pine trees with slack, black wires. They aren't buzzing, sizzling or crackling with juice. The strip of grassy land beneath the electrical cables runs parallel to a brook, which is canopied by the woods: combined, they provide a wide slice of greenery with paths that are ideal for running or walking. You will usually find there a lone, middle-aged person in casual but preppy garb walking a golden retriever or some other kind of family dog who has shared the duties of raising three or more kids and now, like its owner, enjoys peaceful strolls in nature.

On the day I rode by, there was a young man with an easel and oils set up near the road. His back was to me and he was painting the greenery before him in an impressionist manner. I am always surprised when I see a younger artist painting in a style I consider of generations past, but plein air artists are alive and well.

David Sweetman reminds us in his tome Paul Gauguin: A Life that the style and methods were once cutting edge, which had "a wiff of radicalism about them".

He continues to discuss the "landscapes painted outside and not as officially ordained, safely in a studio and blessed with a respectable classical touch - by, say, a Doric temple on a distant hilltop. Where, today, Barbizon paintings look solid and sombre...they were thought to be dangerously light, enough to strike at the very roots of national culture. To go out into the forest of Fontainbleu, near to Barbizon, and paint direct from nature was in itself a protest, a statement that reality with all its flaws was more vital than the ordered antique dreamworld created in the studio. Such action, so the opponents of the 'plein air' painters believed, undermined the hierarchical order which sustained the nation and which was replicated in the world of art by the established structure of the Academy and the Salon jury."

Gauguin's stepfather and benefactor collected such work..."and by admitting it to his drawing room, Gustave Arosa was placing himself firmly amongst the avant-garde and was, although he was unaware of it, offering Paul Gauguin, the future artist, an introduction to some of the most recent ideas on art, bypassing completely the conventional 'art pompier' favoured by court and salon and the art schools of the day. Through his personal taste, Gustave Arosa enabled his ward to avoid the long process of growing out of academic convention before moving onto the new, the laborious journey that most artists were forced to make. Instead, Gauguin was propelled into the here and now."

Today's plein air artists probably do not view themselves so boldly and will not go down in the history of art as movers and shakers but the "protest" inherent to their art is now as important as remain sure-footed in the real world with real sunlight as we move into more virtual spaces with computer simulations of natural settings.

The young man pictured and mentioned above is Kyle Emory McCullough.

The paintings shown here are by my uncle, Jerry Martin, who is also a plein air artist.