Recent decades have brought rapid changes to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, particularly in those lands west of the Cascades. Many areas have been altered almost beyond recognition by logging, road building, and development. Perhaps as a reaction, a group of artists in Seattle, Bellingham, and Tacoma has deliberately chosen to seek out those remaining places where neither subdivisions nor clearcuts spoil the view, creating images of the rural and mountain Northwest that are both celebratory and nostalgic. One of the younger members of this group is Emily Wood, currently having her sixth exhibition at the Lisa Harris Gallery at Pike Place Market. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Walking into an exhibition of paintings by Emily Wood is a bit like slipping into a warm bath. There is an immediate sense of welcome, and comfort. The scenes of sunlit vistas, mostly inspired by the dry lands east of the Cascades, are instantly likable, and the pictures are intelligent, straightforward, and beautifully crafted.
Country roads snake off into the distance between old-fashioned farmhouses, rolling wheat fields shimmer in the afternoon light, and great rivers flow peacefully between golden hills. Discordant details like trailer homes, billboards, power lines, or the inevitable derelict cars, have been edited out or avoided entirely. The artist employs a bold, simplified style reminiscent of early 20th Century modernists, like Canada’s Group of Seven, artists whose work was also reverential in its depiction of the natural world.
Almost all the paintings on display offer us a literal path into an idealized outdoors. Wood favors a composition in which a twisting road, river, or trail leads our eye back into the picture. Surrounding fields of grass or grain are reduced to smooth, sculpted planes, with groves of highly dimensional evergreens standing out in dark relief. Wood limits her palette to a handful of dominant colors, always including areas of bold warmth — like rust colored cliffs or orange croplands — to offset the olive drab trees and cobalt sky.
Wood’s working methods insure both the purification of her subject and the overall radiance of the result. Her paintings are twice removed from their original source — based, reportedly, not on work done on location, but on a charcoal sketch made from a photo. The smooth panel or paper on which she paints has an undertone of rich red, and this undertone subtly affects the final picture, showing through here and there to lend vibrancy to the result.
The sun is almost always out, and the accompanying deep shadows give the landscapes weight and presence. An example is the diminutive painting, "View of Carbon River." The composition is simple, an elevated close-up of a bend in the river with a forested knoll to one side, a framing tree in the foreground. The hour of the day is late, and enormous evergreen shadows fall onto the creamy blue-gray water. Wood is careful to change the shadow color as it crawls across each successive surface, from burnt-orange and mahogany on the bank, to blue and red violet in the river. The huge wedge of darkness makes the yellow sky and distant hills seem all the brighter by contrast.
The painting, "Blackfoot River" is almost perfect enough to be a postcard, with its sensuous, tree-dotted hills, placid waterway, and cumulous-filled sky. But here as elsewhere Wood avoids landscape cliché with her expressionist color scheme — a nod to her modernist roots. The Blackfoot River is painted the color of blood, a tint that is echoed by the muted, rust-stained sky. Elsewhere in the show, "Mowich Lake" is also painted an unearthly red, and the wide Missouri flows nearly jet-black below a lurid, sunset sky.
But these ominous or discordant elements are exceptional. Much more typical is the painting, "Palouse Farm — September," where a classic gabled farmhouse is nestled amidst bands of orange and yellow wheat. The strips of farmland are lovingly molded and shaped like the folds of a reclining nude. The colors harmonize perfectly, the sky is calm. If a paintings were food, this one would be meat loaf and gravy.
For those who believe in progress in art — that each new generation must build upon but not repeat that which has come before — or for those who insist that difficult times must be reflected in challenging art, this show will not stir much interest. For those who do not mind, on the other hand, basking in a skillful celebration of the familiar, this show will be an unencumbered pleasure.