Tula Telfair’s paintings show vast skies, lands that seem familiar but cannot be placed exactly. We question where we are, and we feel small under those threatening skies. Crimson flames feathering far horizons. Bulbous clouds gathering in haste. Lightening stalks and sunsets are impressive, but the sky is largely empty, hosting only some sparse gas molecules. Do we try to comprehend the infiniteness of this sky, or match it with our own vacuity? The mystery of Tula’s paintings encompasses these unanswered questions and draws us in. Understanding the images becomes understanding ourselves and our relationship to nature, a world in which we live but poorly understand, and often poorly value.
Tula’s earlier work provides wilderness at a scale and with a palette that is grand and moving, but with few signs of human presence. These new paintings carry the duality of the human tendency to change and the eternity of the wild land: human structures encased by wild mountains, where roads spread like cancer grows, as in Context Dependent. In Reshaping Mythology, we see an Icelandic landscape with intense play of light on land and linear lights in the sky. No human to be seen here! The Structured Depth of Meaning and Desire is the most naturalistic of these paintings. The awe of the waterfall to humans is a natural part of this wilderness. The flow of water has a sensuous quality when it caresses the land downstream, and the chasm with violent waters ends in peaceful green surroundings.
The three glacier views show remnants of ice, pockmarked with holes, fight against their annihilation, like the final struggle of a dying patient. Civilization Can Not Do Without It shows deep blue ice against solid dark rocks. The majestic glacier is still feeding the icefield but carries the inherent warning that the glacial cover will dissipate into thin air if we warm the planet further. The Wilderness Does Not Locate Itself shows an Arizonian landscape, the sun hiding behind a cloud, yet still omnipresent in highlighting the traces of the rocks. The Contemporary Sublime brought me back to Iceland once more, with its frozen river waiting to be able to flow again. Desolate, frozen in time, with a deep loneliness.
The Past Pressed Up Against The Presence illustrates human structures pushing up against the wild mountains. Here neither will move – the slopes are the boundaries between nature and humans, separated, different, with some animosity between them. Encoding Will Help Recognition brings us (maybe) to North Carolina, with its red soils bleeding into the green land when developed. The Unfamiliar Truth I experienced as classic Tula, with a landmass partly suspended in the skies, vermillion peaks floating in thin air supported by linear clouds, patches of snow, lands’ wilderness amalgamating with unreachable skies.
Tula’s paintings confront us with nature – harsh or gentle and poetic. Speaking for myself, I can look at these paintings for a very long time and wonder what I see. It becomes wondering who I am. To paraphrase an earlier painter: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”I can’t help but think of these words as I walk through this exhibit.
This essay was written by Johan Varekamp, Professor of Earth and Environmental Science