Luminous Concreteness: It takes great precision to render this ambiguity by Michael S. Roth

Replacing the Idea of Nature

How does a painter replace the idea of nature? Not mimic, abandon, or ignore …replace. Since antiquity (at least) artists and critics have wrestled with the role of imagination in the operations of mimesis, and since the Renaissance (at least) critics and artists have lusted after the creation of objects that would be sui generis. Contemporary American artists have investigated the terrain of fantasy and popular culture as realms in which desire’s transubstantiation into things and images can be the object of critique (and profit). When Tula Telfair came of age as an artist, performance was queen and ironic conceptualism seemed to recognize only the traumatic as an index of the real. Her response: landscape painting….

Art historian James Elkins (in a “report” on his 2008 edited volume devoted to landscape theory) described the standing of landscape painting at this time as follows: “A “serious” historical and critical consideration has to count landscape painting and photography as among the passé or recherché genres, if only because the issue now, or at least after minimalism, is whether or not painting itself is dead.”

So, when Telfair responded to the “serious” artists and professors around her with landscape painting, it was, to say the least, a risky choice…. Was it a reactionary gesture against reigning theoretical orthodoxies, or something so retro that it was hip? No, it was more than either of those: it was a will to explore, an anxious commitment to move away from the familiar in search of something that would change one’s experience. But how to communicate what one discovered?

How articulate can a painting be? How does a painter participate in a cultural conversation? Telfair came to art from mathematics and natural science, with a respect, even a longing, for precision. But it was a time when rigor seemed to many in the art world mere ideology or, worse, an empty dream. And landscape painting was seen by many as a degraded vestige of a nationalist ideological project. Her counter: work that makes a showy virtue of technique and precision – but in the service of dreams of land, sky, water, and of the imaginary. Imaginary explorations can sometimes be the riskiest kind.

In our conversations about her work, Telfair herself noted that “one of my fears as a landscape painter when I began was that the work was not intellectual or current or relevant. Actually painting landscapes on this kind of scale is so bizarre and so retro. Yet there is a contemporary coolness to the work that is responding to our age.” The work is subversive, in part, she notes, because it is archaic.

Telfair has spoken about her father, a rebellious navy man, a navigator and an inventor who traveled to the ends of the earth without ever feeling he’d gotten far enough away. He found wilderness, to be sure, and he drilled down into it to explore it further. But in order to keep moving, he had to leave everyone else behind. His painter daughter asks instead: Can you explore without severing connection? What kind of risk would that be?


The Contemporary Sublime

The sublime under Telfair’s brushstrokes is not traumatic, but it is risky; it is threatening. The wound, the piercing, of trauma may be there, almost on the horizon, but so may a break in the clouds, some form of light. Where there is threat there is also potential, or at least an ambiguity that allows for more than just confession and repair (or confessing the impossibility of repair). Telfair’s skies are always already about to move; they are places where things will happen – are happening. The viewer can never be sure where the light is coming from, which also means that darkness, menace, is always a possibility – though never a necessity. It takes great precision to render this ambiguity. Telfair’s contemporaries have often showed (or faked) a disdain for technique, but disdain is not enough to address these times, whatever their ambiguity.

So when Telfair was in art school she decided, “she would learn to do this,” to paint with a technique that would change the nature of the space in which the viewer took in the art object. Like one of her heroes, Richard Serra, she aimed to create work that would alter your relationship to the site of display. When you enter the gallery in which Telfair’s work is hanging, you might think from a distance that you are looking at a large digital photographic print. But this changes as you approach the work and become aware of the brushstrokes, the painterliness of the object. By then you are so close you may “lose yourself in the work” – no longer conscious of the landscape as a whole. As Telfair herself puts it: “I used to love going to amusement parks and the rides that altered my relationship to the physical world. Similarly, I hope my work offers viewers the opportunity to realize a fresh experience seeing paintings as luscious physical objects, or as landscapes themselves.”


Wilderness Does Not Locate Itself

Telfair’s grand paintings do change our relationship to the space of viewing, and perhaps even to spaces more generally. The gorgeous Wilderness does not locate itself depicts…what? A wild cloud descending on jagged peaks that seem to be lit from within? A hovering holiness that is about to speak some truth, share some wisdom? Or is it just a storm front intensifying from the heat of the sunlight, a light that is multiply reflected? This image – and knowing that Telfair often listens to the music of her youth when painting – brings to mind Dylan’s pointed question: “Something is happening here/but you don’t know what it is/do you?” One cannot locate what is happening in this invented place, except through a mood of anticipation and awe. Anticipation and awe are two of the ingredients we often use to locate the wilderness, way out there and here within us. Telfair borrows her title for this picture from historian Simon Schama, whose point is that it is we who make the wilderness – though not entirely as we please.


The Past is Pressed Up Against the Present

When is the past pressed up against the present? Is it when we most aggressively try to change our lives by going to another place – another country, continent, landscape? Is that what keeps us moving away from our rootedness, from our connectedness to where we have been? The feeling that the past is pressed up against us may remind us of our mortality, as landscape painters well know. The jagged peaks, the distant vista may invite us to roam, but we can also sense that over those peaks will be yet more peaks to climb, bodies of water to cross, skies to decipher. Landscape repeats, and through repetition the past presses up against the present.

The past presses up against the present like the sky presses down upon the mountain peaks, like the clouds press up against the sky. And yet all begin nowhere but in the painter’s mind, becoming places through her hands and brushes. No roaming the globe. This exploration takes place in the studio as the artist turns from one canvas to another, solving (pictorial) problems she has devised or felt. Whatever lands are discovered or left behind are not those whose traces we find in photographs.


Civilization Could Not Do Without It

Photography was important in Telfair’s formation as a painter in the 1980s, in part because of the ways that photographers were investigating the process of framing, scale and invention in those years. One feels this, especially if one beholds her pictures at some distance, as is the case with this painting. But as one approaches, it becomes very clearly a painterly object, and one is conscious of the varied brushwork, the playful precision that creates illusion and pleasure.

Today in taking in this painting it’s hard not to think of climate change and melting glaciers and things that are being destroyed that we don’t know how we will do without. Telfair made the trip to Antarctica recently, a trip she had avoided making for years. As a child she was whisked around the globe with her father the explorer, but the painter’s deepest explorations take place in the studio. Telfair’s furthest journeys are to places of her own making, where things may appear to melt, where reflections and shadows attract our gaze, and where the wilderness is part of ourselves that we can’t do without but cannot fully know.

The title of this picture leads us to ask what civilization cannot do without, and perhaps this body of work suggests that we need the wilderness, if only as an outside-of-ourselves that we acknowledge is there. Freud famously insisted that civilization cannot exist without repression, but he also emphasized that we would destroy ourselves if we sacrificed completely our wildness, our instincts, to our ideals. In her studio the painter faces the wildness, her inner wildernesses, and she tames them, or at least frames them as her own. The order of precision and technique, and the disorder of desire and ambiguity – in this tension Nietzsche famously located the birth of powerful art:

The intense clarity of the image failed to satisfy us, for it seemed to hide as much as it revealed; and while it seemed to invite us to pierce the veil and examine the mystery behind it, its luminous concreteness nevertheless held the eye entranced and kept it from probing deeper.

In Tula Telfair’s art we find that luminous concreteness, and we may find ourselves entranced by the beauty of the painted canvas. But, contra Nietzsche, I think we are also invited to probe more deeply, to explore – not through travel but in thoughtful absorption in this extraordinary work.


This essay is by Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University