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Discovering Contemporary Landscape Painting

Side Landscape Painting Now - Book on contemporary landscape painting, including the work of David Hockney, Alex Katz

It’s always exciting to receive a package in the mail, especially these days when a food delivery, care package, or new pair of sweatpants interrupts the regular stay-at-home routine! I was especially counting down the days last week, awaiting the arrival of this much anticipated book: Landscape Painting Now: From Pop Abstraction to New Romanticism.

Edited by Todd Bradway and Barry Schwabsky, Landscape Painting Now: From Pop Abstraction to New Romanticism, was published in 2019 by Thames & Hudson. It is a beautiful, 368 page, hardcover book, featuring the work of over 80 contemporary landscape painters from around the world with more than 400 colour reproductions.

I was interested in this book for two main and intersecting reasons:

  1. I was looking for an inspiring reference book to help answer my questions of: what’s happening in landscape painting currently and who are the driving forces?
  2. to fill in what was, for me, a gap in my own art historical knowledge. I was wondering: what is the status of landscape painting today? Indeed, is it still relevant?

Having studied art history for years, I’d learned about the work of many landscape painters, but when I began thinking about my own influences and looking around for contemporary examples of landscape painters, I realized that more names came to mind of artists long deceased than those still active today. Barry Schwabsky explains a main reason for this gap in knowledge around contemporary landscape painting in his introductory essay of Landscape Painting Now. Schwabsky writes:

“ […] we hold on to habits of mind developed during the second half of the twentieth century, when painting was dominated by abstraction (and later, to a lesser extent, by Pop Art) and when painting itself was sometimes sidelined by emergent genres: conceptual works, performance, installations, and of course, the new genre that was sometimes said to supersede landscape painting in particular, land art.” – p. 13

My education did well to underscore the transformations in aesthetics and subjects of art as responses to shifting historical, political, and sociological contexts. In particular, the courses I took in art theory, criticism, and sociology were explicit in challenging the art historical canon and its many blind spots including the erasure of women artists and artists of colour. At the same time, my education (and, I must admit, my own relation to my education) in both theory and practice left me feeling that landscape painting, especially representational, was, if not a thing of the past, than at least not something worth pursuing seriously.  

I’ve already written on this blog about the impact that the recent David Hockney-Van Gogh exhibition had on me. In particular, it was something Hockney said in the short film that was featured at the beginning of the exhibition—that nature provides limitless possibilities for painting—when something clicked for me. I understood that, despite my own interest, I had been carrying the belief that painting representational landscapes was not interesting. I picked up my brushes after a long hiatus soon after seeing that show. The question of “why landscapes” will be a theme I come back to as I further my own painting practice. In the remainder of this post, however, I will focus on this exceptional book and a few interesting things I took away from it.

[W]hen I began thinking about my own influences and looking around for contemporary examples of landscape painters, I realized that more names came to mind of artists long deceased than those still active today.

Landscape Painting Now is divided into 6 themes: Realism and Beyond, Post-Pop Landscapes, New Romanticism, Constructed Realities, Abstracted Topographies, and Complicated Vistas. The theme I connected to most was Post-Pop Landscapes, which features artists including David Hockney, Alex Katz, Daniel Heidkamp, and Isca Greenfield-Sanders, among others. The introductory essay to the Post-Pop Landscapes chapter clarifies that,

“Post-Pop does not necessary mean ‘chronologically after Pop’: one might even say that the most important part of the phrase is the ‘post-‘ designating an image that emerges after an image that already exists.” – p. 91.

The essay goes on to explain that this “post” understood as “following” Pop-Art is especially not the case with the work of Alex Katz, who was already working in the 1950’s and who is still active today, in his nineties. Katz’s cropped and large-scale compositions are inspired by billboards and the movie screen. Known for his portraits and landscapes, Katz has made these traditional subjects exciting over the last 7 decades.

“Katz’s work argues for the possibility of fresh perception even after we’ve been immersed in the ready-made sensations of mass-culture; it is profoundly optimistic in that sense.” – p. 91.

We can see this idea of painting based on an existing image in the work of artist Isca Greenfield-Sanders (@iscags). Greenfield-Sanders’ paintings of beaches are based on vintage 35 mm colour slides, which is evident not only from the fashion but also from the light quality and the play with exposure in her mixed media works. The 2015 painting entitled Beach Fade, pictured below, has this contrasting effect of bright colours and faded details, wherein sections of the image almost disappear. Taking a look through Greenfield-Sanders’ online portfolio, I am drawn to her strong use of shadows and the play between vibrant and soft colours.

Beach Fade – Isca Greenfield-Sanders
® Isca Greenfield-Sanders – Reproduced with permission from the artist

I also felt an immediate connection to the work of Daniel Heidkamp (@danielheidkamp), particularly his painting, Red Veranda (2017), which depicts a waterfront house with—as its name suggests—a bright red and pink veranda. I’m drawn to the intense shadows and use of bright and subtle colour together. 

Daniel Hedkamp's painting Red Veranda, included in the book Contemporary Landscape Now, example of Post-Pop Landscape Art.
© Daniel Heidkamp – Reproduced with permission from the artist

What many of the artists featured in the Post-Pop Landscapes theme have in common is the use of vibrant colour and an emphasis on the communicated feeling or sensation of the work, which somehow taps into both a general and personal experience. When I look at Heidkamp’s Red Veranda, for example, I feel a connection to my own memories of quiet summer days and lazy afternoons. There is also a sense that the experience of this particular season, place, and time of day are something recognizable.

Landscape Painting Now exceeded my expectations in providing answers to the questions I had been asking myself about contemporary landscape painting. The answers are open ones however, more of a beginning. Having discovered some inspiring artists and having a feeling of renewed support that nature can indeed provide much material for inspiring, interesting, and fresh landscape paintings–both representational as well as more abstracted–gives me both an optimism, following Katz, and a broader language to think about my own interests and artistic intentions. 

Picture of the book Landscape Painting Now which contains a selection of contemporary landscape artists showcasing their work, including Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, David Hockney, Daniel Heidkamp and Isca Greenfield-Sanders.

Thanks for reading!

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Special thanks to my friend and amazing artist, Claire MacDonald, for recommending this book to me in the first place!