Beautiful paintings of nature ravaged by human schemes pull viewers in opposite directions. We’re repelled by the truth that we've inflicted enormous wounds on the landscape, whether indirectly, through our choices as consumers, or directly. Yet the beauty of the paintings draws us in.
The effect is a curious excitement, an energy that keeps the eye and mind awake and alert. A more conventional, message-driven artist might choose to paint clearcut hillsides with their mudslides and ghostly stumps, confronting viewers with a despairing dead end or with a push to join a save-the-earth movement. In such images we know exactly what we're seeing and what we're supposed to think.
Philip Govedare's work provokes more questions than answers. The landscape in each painting is a distillation of light, color, line, and shape that tips reality toward abstraction and gives the imagination room to work.
For example, "Excavation #6" (at right) both is and isn't an image of an open-pit mine such as the Bingham Canyon copper mine, a project that has destroyed and polluted so huge an area of Utah that it may be listed as a Superfund site.
The painting may evoke the shape of that gigantic dig, but in Govedare's excavation the land is elastic and tender, and the surface of the earth is translucent — somehow watery, or snowy. The miles of road cut to make way for machinery are pale scribbles on the painting's surface, as if added at random, gently, after the fact, and the dark violet-blue of the excavated area in the lower half of the canvas modulates to soft greens, pinks, and golds as the eye lifts to the horizon.
The landscape of "Excavation #6," like others in Govedare's exhibition at the Francine Seders Gallery, has a matchless delicacy and grace. We don't need to see violent cuts and gouges or poison-green waters to know that the land can be — is being — seriously harmed. Yet there is also something eternal about the place in the painting. Its beauty has survived its wounding.
Some viewers may want to ease the tension inherent in Govedare's ambiguities by throwing more of their energy into environmental causes. But "I don't have a political agenda," the artist said in an interview at the gallery. "We have put our imprint on the world in a certain way, and even though the implications might be quite sinister — even if what we've done is really horrific in some ways, or really disturbing — it might also be beautiful. I'm looking at the world as I see it. And then people can draw their own conclusions."
Govedare also stressed that the paintings aren't representations of reality. "The work is fiction. It is not strictly based on observation," he said. If an actual scene seems to have inspired a painting, it's a rudimentary memory he has brought through a series of sketches and watercolor drafts "to find things I wouldn't otherwise see. I start out not with a specific image in mind, ever."
Instead he seeks "a quality of light, a space, a particular structure within which I can build something. On some level it's between an abstract expressionist's approach and something more representational. I move the paint around, and through a process of elimination the painting starts to build itself."
So Govedare is elaborating on the kind of work he exhibited in his 2004 show at the Seders Gallery, Paintings from the Duwamish. His current show, drawn from his memories, sketches, and snapshots of places in Eastern Washington and Utah, is still "outside time and place" (the subtitle of the Duwamish exhibition). And the Duwamish River's Superfund site status coheres thematically with his more recent landscapes of massive excavations, floods, and other consequences of human activity.
The viewer sees Govedare's grand, panoramic landscapes from an indeterminate point high above the earth, and the canvases are large. "The scale, the actual physical size of the painting, envelops the viewer and gives the viewer an awareness of his or her size in relation to what is being depicted," he said. "In southern Utah you feel a sense of the immensity, the monumentality, the vastness of the land compared to yourself."
So distant are the painted scenes from the viewer's imagined standpoint that any objects the size of human beings or their artifacts, if they were present in the landscape, would be invisible. Still, we need no monstrous dump trucks, bulldozers, or dinosaur excavators with their sharp-toothed bucket-shovels massed in these scenes to realize the threats confronting the land.
Also striking in Govedare's work is the light that suffuses his paintings, so intensely they almost glow. He said that the light comes from the colors playing against each other. "Color is really interesting to me, but I've never been very interested in just going out and capturing the color of something I'm painting. For me color, when it becomes free from description, opens up into another function," and he explained how juxtaposing complementary colors (e.g., blue with orange) creates light.
Yet for all the intensity of color and light in these works, there's a feeling of transparency, of thinnest tissue easily torn. In the red expanses of "Excavation #4," for example (about which my friend Joan remarked, "There's a lot of bad news in this one"), vital fluids seem to be bleeding right out of the picture. Although that effect wasn't intentional, said Govedare, the earth can be thought of "as a kind of organism with a circulatory system.... I think about the landscape as having a skin, and the skin can be transparent, or scumbled. I can almost see these lines as — this is water, but these red lines can be capillaries."
Govedare is less interested in what red or blue might represent than in the way the colors (say, in "Flood") suggest "some kind of human intervention" (pollution, maybe, though while we're telling ourselves that's what we see, our experience of the work narrows). The ribbons of road and stream that stray sometimes haphazardly across his painted scenes are also suggestive. To me they often appear closer to the eye than the surface of the earth in the paintings, as if the viewer were partly imposing this tracery on the view.
Govedare agreed. "We give things a shape, all this noise between us and what we see. The way the roads go through the landscape are like the mind wandering through it." More important, the straying lines, like the painter's stunning colors, "ultimately create a condition of the unfamiliar. Where could this be? What is going on here?"
So his paintings begin and end with questions. They spring in part from a strong consciousness of environmental degradation, but the artist's choice is not simply to break our hearts with the ruin we've wrought, no matter how aesthetically arresting it might be on canvas. For Govedare, "The paintings have to arise in a place where they remain open to interpretation, leave viewers with a question that is open."
In my experience, too, relentless bad news tends to shut down the mind, even the potentially interested mind. Fortunately, then, Govedare's paintings are not apocalyptic. But they're not pretty pictures, either. They’re magnificent.
If you go: "Philip Govedare: Recent Paintings,” through Sunday (June 5), Francine Seders Gallery, 6701 Greenwood Ave. N. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m. - 5 p.m., and by appointment, 206-782-0355. Free.
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