I’m a fan of American Impressionism. The landscapes in that style and period are some of the most romantic and evocative in our country’s brief art history.
They aren’t the landscapes of today, however, and it’s important to keep that in mind when we look at contemporary landscape paintings.
The Plein Air painters tend to favor the American Impressionist look, as do many others who venture into the realm of landscape painting not understanding that that time has come and gone.
What is the landscape of today? How can an artist approach the genre and not lapse into an approach that ceased to be new 100 years ago?
It’s a difficult question, not only because when faced with a beautiful vista, our instinct is to capture it in a beautiful manner, and nothing was more beautiful than the impressionist technique.
Many new methods have taken root since then, such as collage, abstraction, Dada, found art, assemblage, conceptualism, installation art and, increasingly, hybrids of all the above.
If an artist is dedicated to paint and canvas, however, there are still ways to approach the landscape without falling into a nostalgic funk.
Recent Landscapes: Works by Doug Unger, Ben Bassham and Charles Basham, on view at the Kent State University School of Art Downtown Gallery, is an effort to do just that, and the fact that it only partially succeeds can be instructive.
The works are essentially those of Unger and two of his students — Charles Basham, who studied under him at Kent State University during the 1970s and currently is an adjunct faculty member there; and Ben Bassham, who taught art history at KSU until his retirement in 1999 after 30 years of teaching, and who has been taking instruction under Unger since then.
Unger, like Ben Bassham, is an emeritus professor who taught at KSU for 35 years. And like Charles Basham, Unger was raised on a farm and has profound ties to the land and farming.
Because of these deep ties, Unger has found a sympathetic cord in the Amish way of life and spends much of his time exploring Ohio’s Amish country, painting and photographing (with permission) the carefully cultivated lands of the Ordnung.
Almost all of Unger’s pastels in this exhibit are Amish farms in and around Charm, Ohio, where he often travels in pursuit of unusual and rare woods that he uses in his other artistic pursuit, the building and carving of musical instruments.
As an artist, craftsman and traditional musician who lives and works in Peninsula, Unger finds the Amish stewardship, not only of the land, but of whatever pursuit they undertake, to be personally gratifying.
“There’s a kind of serene beauty of the land that I’m after, and I find that in the Amish culture,” Unger said.
“They let me use my camera as long as I don’t aim it at them. But sometimes they say no, and when that happens, I usually discover that they are Old Order. They don’t like the ‘English,’ ” he explained. “There are Old Order Mennonites who don’t like the ‘English’ either.”
Most of his pastels are done on site and on farms that are near each other, and, he says, those are usually farms of an extended family.
“The big house is lived in by the head of the family, and his children live in smaller houses on different parts of the farm. When he dies, the oldest child moves into the big house,” he explained, adding that the Amish society is notoriously patriarchal and misogynistic.
“They are a lot like Muslims in that regard,” he said.
Reflecting that rigidity, Unger’s pastels and paintings have a rectilinear quality, with the gridded order of the Amish farm coming through in the combination of vertical and horizontal strokes resulting in a pointillistic effect that’s almost gridlike in nature.
His palette consists of nuanced local color, and his compositions are straightforward, economical and traditional, an approach that gets no apologies from Unger.
“I grew up on a farm, so what [the Amish] do is kind of near and dear to me,” he said.
“Chuck and I were both trained in portrait painting, but we grew out of it,” Unger noted. “With landscape painting, you have to deal with everything.
Ben Bassham’s work is similarly traditional, only not as ordered nor as nuanced as Unger’s.
The work Bassham displays was done on his many travels to the American Southwest, New Mexico in particular, and a recent trip to Ireland.
Bassham’s approach is straightforward and his palette tends toward generalized local color.
His best work continues to be the paintings done in New Mexico and the American Southwest, as the austerity of the land and the clarity of the light are the perfect antidote to foregone conclusions.
It is to Chuck Basham’s landscapes, however, that we must turn for insightful and interpretive richness.
His recent paintings reflect both the foreboding and tension that one would expect to find in today’s paintings, no matter the genre.
Not just a means of conveying the tranquility and serenity of agricultural life, Basham’s work reveals the concerns of one for whom the life of a farmer is a neighboring everyday reality.
Having spent many years living next to his parents’ farm, he learned to juxtapose studio time with days helping his dad maintain the holdings. And even if those days are now behind him, the stark realities linger in his work.
His paintings confront us with startled blackbirds at dusk, rising in thick swarms to search for nesting sites for the night; disordered underbrush clogging the woodlands; the threat of approaching summer storms — nothing, in short, that’s serene or bucolic.
These paintings could serve as metaphors for contemporary life, and separated from each other, they can stand alone for the apprehension of contemporary life, the loss of/search for order in the world, the unexpected fragmentation of our tranquility.
If we were looking for a guide as to how to depict the contemporary landscape within the medium of paint on canvas, we would have to look long and hard to find a better example than the work of Charles Basham.
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or firstname.lastname@example.org.