Artwork has a way of transcending convention, time and space. A talented artist can push the boundaries made by their predecessors and carve a new path entirely of their own making. Multiple American art movements in the 20th century did just that—building on color and design techniques to execute otherworldly interpretations of Western and Southwestern American landscapes.
Three bodies of work that represent American pioneerism in terms of light and landscape are on display at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ “Western Light, Ecstatic Landscapes” exhibit at The Center in Ketchum. An evening tour will be hosted Thursday, Aug. 14, during which patrons can learn more about the artwork and sip wine.
New Mexico’s Transcendental Painting Group, California’s midcentury Dynaton movement and the work of Frederick S. Wight spanning throughout the 1970s and 1980s make up “Western Light, Ecstatic Landscapes.” While the time frames and locations of the movements may differ, they share similarities through a strong use of color and abstract feel. Aside from pure aesthetics, many of the artists on display were motivated by philosophy, spirituality and even numerology in their creative process.
Artist Emil Bisttram was a co-founder of the Transcendental Painting Group of the Southwest in the first half of the 20th century, along with Portland native Raymond Jonson. The works of Jonson and Bisttram, along with their nine followers, utilized the desert landscape of New Mexico and surrounding areas as a jumping-off point for magical realism. Jonson was a follower of theosophy, which popularized the idea of color and music being expressed through vibrations. His influences were expressed rhythmically in his paintings throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Bisttram was similarly influenced by the dramatic sunsets and barren desert scapes of the Southwest. In his paintings, symmetry and harmony are of primary importance. He believed that discord could be worked out on canvas, that he could placate the differences between religion and science pictorially.
The short-lived Dynaton movement took place in Northern California during the culturally groundbreaking time of the 1940s and 1950s. While the rest of the country transitioned from a culture of war and rations to one of consumerism and excess, a small group of artists branched out from the practicalities of day-to-day life to find comfort in “inner worlds.” Similar to the Transcendental Painting Group in their use of light, Wolfgang Paalen, Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican merged surrealism and Eastern spirituality. “Dynaton” came from the Greek word for “the possible.”
“The possible does not have to be justified by the known,” said Paalen in his journal “Dyn,” published in the 1940s.
Indeed, works like Onslow Ford’s “Forest Go Round” in 1951 offered a schematic look into the universe using rudimentary shapes. The night sky was a huge inspiration for both Onslow Ford and Paalen, as was sunlight for Mullican. He delved into Native American spiritualism, reflected in his 1953 piece “Santos,” an homage and reinterpretation of the Southwest saint statues. The group disbanded early into the 1950s, but their body of work remains a cultural touchstone.
Wight, whose work makes up the third branch of The Center’s exhibit, was actually a friend of Mullican at the University of California at Los Angeles. Mullican taught at UCLA in the 1960s while Wight was the director of the university art gallery. Wight retired in 1973 and dedicated the rest of his life to painting. A critic compared Wight’s surreal landscape paintings to Joneson of the Transcendental Painting Group movement, describing both artists’ styles as depicting “ecstatic nature.” A Wight piece from 1979, “Image of an Hour,” shows a closely cropped set of palm trees. The focus of the picture, however, is the sun in motion, said to be a reflection of Wight’s appreciation for Mullican and his ability to depict light in motion.
The exhibit runs through Saturday, Aug. 16. Daily admission and attendance of the Thursday evening event are free.