The Contemporary Landscape

Linda C. Hults, The College of Wooster Art Museum, October 18, 2002

In contrast with the restrained documentary character of Sultan's works, Nancy Friese's are lush and emotionally charged. Her energetic, often brilliantly colored paintings, conceived with the human body standing in front of the space in mind, command our intimate relationship with a still-powerful natural environment. The varied history of landscape painting is as important for Friese as it is for Nelson: behind Friese’s paintings we sense John Constable, Thomas Moran, Vincent Van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, Emil Nolde, Charles Burchfield and many others. But whereas Nelson selects details or conceives compositions with historical referents and ages her surfaces to suggest time, loss, and historical distance, Friese assimilates earlier artistic responses into her own to reassert an imperative or immediacy. Her paintings are about the joy and work of perception, but also how perception is conditioned by what artists have seen and what people have experienced in these places. Her paintings remind me of my own sudden reconnections with nature: the sight of sn breaking through trees, or a dizzying spatial movement that takes me aback when I least expect it. Those responses are instantaneous, but are also triggered by what artists have taught me to see and what I know about the history of a place.


Friese's landscapes are invariably rich in human history--the North Dakota of her Norwegian-- American ancestors and her childhood, or European sites like Pont-Aven or Giverny, France, laden with art-historical associations, or the heavily populated area of the Rhode Island coast where she lives. The wintry Last Wave (1998; cat. no. 9), for example, was painted a scant half- block from Friese’s home. The black water of Narragansett Bay, frequently painted by American landscapists, recedes at low tide as ominous, multicolored clouds fill the sky. Although we glimpse many houses through the fringe of trees, the primary impression is of the rugged shore and blustery cold. The absence of figures privileges our response, and the human history that saturates the New England coast informs the present moment.



In Bright Entry (1999; fig. 7 and cat. no. 7)--a landscape from Pont-Aven, Brittany, where Paul Gauguin and numerous other artists, attracted by the rustic scenery and the exotic Celtic heritage, worked Ñhuman elements (wall, house, road) on the right contrast with the tangled vegetation on the left. As always in Friese's work, perceiving space is an adventure in itself: here the right and left sides of the picture push and pull forward and back, with the center mass of entangled trees as the pivot. Distant clouds are brought forward by saturated color and emphatic shapes, and throughout, complementary colors (blue and orange, red and green) vibrate against each other. Despite its human history, and its significance for art history, Friese refuses to domesticate this space.



River of the North (2000; cat. no. 8) and Plains, Chimera (2000; fig. 8 and cat. no. 11) are scenes of or near North Dakota's Red River that flows north along the flat floor of Glacial Lake Agassiz. In April of 1997, the convergence of melted snow and heavy spring rains generated another devastating flood along the River, leaving Grand Forks and East Grand Forks with two-billion dollars in damage. The view Friese takes is from a newly constructed flood wall; behind the wall lies a demolished neighborhood in Grand Forks. The human history of the site and the enormous power of the River are reflected in the glowering mood and deep colors of this painting.



Similarly, Plains, Chimera suggests for Friese both the beauty of the plains and the hardships faced by its human inhabitants. This prospect in the Red River Valley looks toward a plot of land that Friese now owns-the homestead of her great-grandfather, who came from central Norway and built a sod house on land once occupied by Native Americans. Although she was conscious of this human history as she painted, she still wanted to express the power and unpredictability (note her title) of nature. As in Jacobshagen's paintings, the sky overwhelms us, but its omnipotence is differently conveyed. The shifting horizontal and vertical distances among the ephemeral clouds in Friese's chaotic sky contrast with the quick certainty of the recession of road and ditch. From the vanishing point, billowing blue clouds build upward and outward in the opposite direction, creating a baroque spatial dynamic.



Friese's recent paintings from a wooded park in East Haddam, Connecticut, epitomize the human scale and familiar locations that dominate her art. In Through the Trees (2002; cat. no. 10), we are immersed in a dense, graceful network of vegetation, looking toward the rippled, pink and blue surface of a pond and the low forested hills beyond. Friese intimately engages us in the linear intricacy of the space she occupied as she painted, and she lends a slight sense of escape to our glimpse of the more distant, less encumbered spaces. The delicate colors, dominated by soft greens, and the screen of thin branches and foliage recall Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's woodland landscapes. Like Corot, Friese uses the foreground trees to form a translucent, space- creating, weblike surface. But without Corot's silvery haze that reconciles far and ear and softens contrasts, Friese's work exploits the insistent immediacy of space and color.



Through the Trees marks Friese's return to a landscape dominated by natural forms after something of a departure in 2001, when she held an artist's residency on the ninety-first floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. On September 11, when sheer coincidence found her away from her WTC studio, everyone in the north tower above that level died in the terrorist attack. Friese's twenty-four paintings, now destroyed, encompassed sweeping views of space, with the city reduced to small strips a the bottom, and a new perspective on the clouds that have always been important in her work. Although the WTC project was ostensibly a significant change of direction for her, she views it as consistent with her continuing interest in how people relate to their environment: in this case, one dominated by space, sky and clouds, and the horizon. The reconstructions she plans will be records of what the deceased WTC workers saw on a daily basis, she says.

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