Land and Light by Andy Szegedy-Maszak


“I do believe that painting is the most magical of the mediums because it

transcends its physical reality. You have colored dirt and you dip this stick

with hairs glued on the end of it and rub it around in that colored dirt and

smear it on some cloth that’s wrapped around some wooden sticks; it makes

space where there was no space and it can punch a hole in the wall. A

painting can make you cry, and you’re just looking at colored dirt smeared on

a flat surface.” [1]

The renowned American artist Chuck Close made the above-quoted remarks during a radio interview. When I heard the show, I very much liked the seemingly offhand simplicity of his description of the act of painting. It was as if he were a small child, or an observer from another civilization where painting is unknown, who was trying to convey his wonder at what artists can do. Close is, in fact, anything but an outsider, much less a naïve enthusiast. He is a highly sophisticated and highly successful participant in the contemporary art community. What he has to say about painting is the distillation of many years of hard work in that medium.

Close’s observation was also a good way for me to start thinking about Tula Telfair’s landscapes, because to me they embody the kind of magic Close was evoking. Using pigments and canvas and, needless to say, her outstanding technique and capacious imagination, Tula creates extraordinary landscape paintings. They vary in tone, mood and setting. Some are quite dark, with passages that are almost opaque, while others have a pale, shimmering luminosity. Although the horizon line tends to sit low in the frame, it does, on occasion, rise toward the middle or the top of the picture. The scenes depicted can be mountains, plains, or valleys, some richly overgrown, some bare and bleak. The contours of the land are sometimes smooth, sometimes jagged, and the sky ranges from serene to turbulent. The variations, however, are subordinate to – and manifestations of – the qualities the images share. At the simplest level, these are big paintings. Sometimes large works of art are bombastic, relying on their sheer size for their aesthetic effect. Tula’s paintings, by contrast, don’t substitute magnitude for quality. They are genuine vistas. Not only expansive, they are also nearly empty of human presence or construction. Unlike, say, the marvelous works of the 19th-century “Hudson River” painters, there are no figures in these landscapes. One result is that we viewers are left to let our eyes roam freely over the entire view (to use a 19th-century term). We observe and take pleasure in the ways Tula subtly modulates the play of light, which has an almost independent presence in all her works. At this point I have to admit that I don’t know how Tula manages so consistently to make works that are at the same time deeply traditional and wholly modern. Perhaps it’s enough to say, in the words of Chuck Close, that her paintings make space where there was no space.

This essay was by Andy Szegedy-Maszak, Professor of Classical Studies

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