Does anyone today still believe that landscape can be the subject of great painting? Artists as renowned as Gerhard Richter and Alex Katz have made memorable landscape paintings—albeit under the sign of photography in Richter’s case, abstraction in Katz’s, and therefore ostensibly evading the charge of anachronism. Nevertheless, the unspoken assumption of the contemporary art world is that landscape is old-fashioned, a dusty souvenir of the 19th century.
Maureen Gallace thinks otherwise. The 12 small paintings of hers from 2013 to 2015 recently exhibited at the 303 Gallery in New York City could probably, from the viewpoint of technique, have been made at any point in the last 150 years. Their size alone—ranging from nine by 12 inches to 10 by 13—all but dares you to dismiss them as minor. And their subject matter is timeless: trees, flowers, the ocean, houses so plain and rendered with so little detail that dating them seems beside the point. Only the white line down the middle of a road flanked by utility poles indicates the automobile age. Yet there is nothing stale or dowdy about these works. Gallace’s self-consciousness about the conventions of painting (her “postmodernism,” I think it fair to say of an artist who was educated in the 1980s and has been exhibiting since 1990) clicks into place with a fresh, ingenuous responsiveness to things observed in a manner that feels new or at least unfamiliar, no matter the kinship you might sense with Edwin Dickinson or Giorgio Morandi, Lois Dodd or Albert York.
Then again, perhaps it’s misleading to settle on landscape as the subject of Gallace’s work. I myself once compared her paintings to those of Josef Albers, seeing them as “fundamentally abstract, the house [being] not so much a house as the form of a house, a given shape, a certain geometry,” like those endless squares painted by the ex-Bauhaus colorist. No one would talk about Albers as a square painter (except perhaps in the ’60s-slang sense). Likewise, there’s a strong case for saying that Gallace shouldn’t be called a landscape painter; she’s simply a painter, full stop. Landscape imagery is the visual language she uses to explore her interest in what paint does when it is observantly and succinctly organized into a picture. Her paintings suggest that she’s spent a lot more time thinking about and looking at paint and paintings than she has thinking about and looking at scenery. This being the case, shouldn’t I put the question of landscape out of my mind?
Maybe so, but I can’t. All my hard-earned formalism won’t push the question away or transform it into an answer, because Gallace’s paintings are enigmatic; it’s hard to know what to “do” with them. They seem to solicit interpretation with the same quiet insistence that stymies it. They also seem permeated with nostalgia, both in their subject matter and technique, which has prompted some critics to dismiss them as “comfort food for the eye.” That view overlooks the way these paintings are, in the end, indifferent to the nostalgia that might color them. They don’t insist on a mood. It would be easy to see them as naive, and easier still as faux-naive, but it’s also not so hard to see them making use of a representational convention about which they are ultimately agnostic.