In Margaret Atwood’s 1990 story Death by Landscape, a woman named Lois sits in her Toronto apartment. She is surrounded by landscape paintings, hung salon style. The works describe restive natural scenes of woods and lakes and rivers, but produce in her a feeling of unease. Lois reminisces about the summer camp she used to attend many decades ago, an outdoorsy place of questionable First Nations LARPing and harrumphing good cheer. On a canoe trip, she peeled off with her best friend Lucy for an impromptu hike up to a lookout point. She hears a shout, then silence; the friend has melted into the landscape without a trace, like Daphne turned into a tree. This disappearance overshadows the rest of Lois’ life. She begins to collect landscapes:
“She bought them because she wanted them.
She wanted something that was in them although she could not have said at the time what it was.“
I wonder what Lois would make of this show, another room crowded with landscape paintings. I imagine her as one of the women in Cece Philips’ diptych, in which two sweater wearers, sitting on plastic lawn chairs, look out onto a verdant canopy of trees. There’s a curiously visceral sense of felt temperature: it’s sunny and, judging by the kinds of trees, quite hot outside, but you somehow know that the AC is on full blast, and if one of those figures were to lean forwards and press a palm to the plate glass, they would find it quite chilled to the touch.
Jen Hitchings’ surreal landscapes similarly play with temperature and hue. Each work is nearly monochromatic in that its palette is limited to a cool-toned colour as well as its warm toned analogue. Maroon to orange, for example, in a work whose multi-phasal moons alternatively suggests alien planets and the multi-temporality of the thangka. While the liquid pools and cascades in her other pieces here suggest otherworldly seas and waterfalls, here they invoke magmic flows or perhaps a scene that is rather more infernal: these works could equally be seen as describing the landscapes underground and inside the Earth’s crust.
Rather than Lois’ unpeopled boreal wildernesses, the works on view in LANDSCAPE span many kinds of plant life, many biomes. Take Taedong Lee’s lush, almost fauvist tropicalia and the blown-out pastel rice paddies of Cara Nahaul’s Pierced Sky (2021). They commingle with Nat Meade’s dreamy wildflower-strewn meadows and the snowy coniferous scene of Mikey Yates’ Evening Studio Commute (2022), in which a man and dog are illuminated under a streetlamp that casts the kind of burnished glow promised by sunset lamps advertised under viral tweets. Other works from Zoe McGuire gesture towards the barren reaches of outer space, while in Matthew F Fisher’s The Harmony of the Spheres, planets whirl like a Holst suite.
Some works feature wholly urban streetscapes, all cars and buildings and tarmac and carefully ordered greenery. All gardening is landscape painting, as Alexander Pope once said; by extension, all landscape painting can be considered as a kind of small-scale terraforming that prunes with paint and gesture to alter shape and form. There’s very little natural about it. I think about the way that urban planners privilege male trees when planting city pavements and meridians because they don’t drop fruit or seeds and thus reduces the need for cleanup—even if the disproportionate pollen production means misery for hayfever sufferers.
This, however, is how so many of us encounter nature today: as urban landscaping, or contained in city parks. Adam de Boer presents exactly this scenario, in a suite of paintings of one Califorrnian lake at different times of day, June at Echo Park Lake: Morning, Midday, Evening, Night (2022). Four works from Joanne Kim suggest more rural settlements, where clusters of houses are set among forests and fields, and where someone might easily reach the open outskirts of town to stargaze or take a dip in a lake. Back in the city, we have Annie Hémond Hotte’s Star Shadows (Driggs Avenue) (2022), which features stylised houses and maraca-like trees in muted blues and sagey greys. It’s the kind of thing someone might see looking out of their Brooklyn apartment window, but the flattened, slightly aerial perspective and inverted tree shadows suggest that this might instead be a scene captured by Google Maps.
It’s worth thinking here about the effects of technology on landscape painting. Just as the invention of oil paint tubes and portable easels ushered in an era of plein air painting in the 19th century, the products of today equally have their own impact on the genre. I want to emphasise the word products: the evolution of landscape painting is inextricable with the history of capitalism. This link is made explicit in Ian Decker’s tired flowers painted on panels decoupaged with supermarket coupons and sheet music, Dead Heart Field Illusion and Flowers from the Crossroad (both 2022), as well as the visual arboreal-genealogical pun of Dollar Tree (2021).
Despite this, we imbue landscape painting with a dreamy, romanticised haze associating it more with silence and the sounds of nature—some birds, a burbling stream perhaps—than blaring horns, the yells of children, and capitalist excess. Rather than the literal haze of Impressionism or Pointillism, however, in Lily Kemp’s colourful, nostalgic vistas and Tessa Perutz’s coastal dunes we see a stylisation influenced by the flat design of GUIs and computer or app icons that is popular now. After all, many of us encounter these kinds of scenes not through taking a stroll outside, but mediated through film, streaming services and even video games, as with Jesse Morsberger’s Super Mario works.
The most significant technological impact might however be linguistic. My primary association with the word landscape is not scenic vistas so much as the landscape mode of phone cameras, apps, and the various screens with which I interface on a daily basis. Landscape, then can also be understood as a framing and an orientation, a turning of the body or the screen much as a sunflower turns to face, and then follow the sun. And on a basic level, some landscape painting is just that: wider than it is high, as in Sikelela Owen's tender familial scenes.
Still—why landscape painting and why now? We tend to see the genre as capturing scenes that are somehow timeless, wholly out of time, while equally being nostalgic for the same vista’s unavoidable despoilment. Absent significant human or industrial interference, after all, a landscape might look fairly similar from one century to the next, even as phenomena like drought or soil acidification create subtler, less visible changes over time. Landscape painting has also tended to flourish with rediscovery of nature—or rather a societal reprivileging of it, as we are now seeing thanks to both the pandemic and a generalised generational anxiety about environmental degradation and the ongoing climate catastrophe.
Perhaps we need to decouple landscape and the spectre of the untouched, unpeopled natural as a first step towards considering what landscape painting looks like today. Discussing Atwood’s story in her 2022 essay collection by the same name, Elvia Wilk notes that we usually think of landscapes as passive, scenic planty backdrops for human activity. After all, landscapes are and perhaps always have been sites of projection. They exist as field or ground to set off the figures in the foreground, providing visual and allegorical ballast, a silent Greek chorus. In the Western painting tradition, idealised landscapes have been associated with moral and religious themes, from the European Renaissance through to the American concept of Manifest Destiny.
In many works, the landscape functions this way, as a foil to human subjects. The titles of Hilary Doyle’s paintings, The Three Graces IV and Mother and Child VIII (both 2022) carry these allegorical themes into the present, albeit with the addition of fruity allover prints. Some artists do however wish to redirect the viewer’s attention onto the land itself, as with Decker’s aforementioned ethnographies of human and ecological exhaustion and Georg Wilson’s vernal ode, Spring Clean for the May Queen (2022), which seems to draw as much from the Arts and Crafts movement as from folkloric and botanical knowledge. In Zoe Young’s tablescapes and in Chelsea Wong and Evie O’Connor’s paintings of beaches, pools, cruise ships, and other watery leisure activities, meanwhile, we get a sense of landscapes that are entirely shaped for human activity, even when outside.
Of young Lucy’s transformation, Wilk notes that “the sudden absence of a human actor occasions a sudden presence: the presence of landscape, the presence of plants.” It’s a refocusing of sorts, like turning a camera’s aperture ring; like the flowers that come to the fore in Diane Chappalley’s paintings. We feel this presence especially in Corydon Cowansage’s Greens in which plump, velvety pairs of the titular leaves purse together like pairs of lips and in the striking semi-abstraction of Teething Crocus (Red, Turquoise, Peach) (both 2022). It is especially strong in Amy Lincoln’s Leaf Tunnel (2022), which shows a foliaged wormhole that suggests standing inside of a hollow hedge and looking up, Minyoung Kim’s anthropomorphic cut flowers, and Zoe McGuire’s swirly floral portals or perhaps orifices.
I think of Lois describing her collection of paintings as “holes that open inward on the wall, not like windows but like doors,” and seeing her long-lost school friend in each one—there out of sight behind that tree or rocky outcrop, unseen but most certainly there. And I think of all the other women that disappear without a trace, circulating briefly on flyers and social media until they too, like Lucy, are forgotten by most, and I begin to see in each leaf here a missing girl.
- Rahel Aima