A number of years ago, with a couple of friends, I fell into the custom, in particularly beautiful locations, of rating landscapes as if they were paintings. “That hill is remarkably well rendered… those clouds could have been painted by Sisley,” we would say, in a jocular tone of voice. It was a way of expressing love of the scenery, certainly, and sacrilege at the same time: it seemed to be “reducing” the perfection of nature to the human act of depicting it.
But then, like paintings, landscapes do echo our deepest emotions, acting as real- world metaphors for moods, longings, desires, dreams and even fears (something well exploited by many surrealists). Even good and evil in diverse manifestations have very personal earthbound correlates for us. And we have preferences. Certain specific landscapes resonate with us in our different states of mind. The abyss: danger, risk, or an object of fear; a highland plain: serenity; a vast canyon: the inscrutability of the infinite, of time. There is an endless lexicon of natural symbols for all of us.
How does looking at nature differ from looking at a work of art?
Such issues are conjured up in spades in Tula Telfair’s meticulously painted imaginary panoramas. The scenery is often spectacular and remote: huge expanses of sky over sharp, red, craggy mountaintops on fire with the last rays of the setting sun, misty waterfalls surrounded by greenery, luminous mossy hills under heavy grey clouds, ice floes and snowy hills reflected in the ocean. Most of them show no trace of human existence.
The scenes, the lighting, their vastness, all elicit strong emotions: moods, a sense of enigma, or the feeling of a moment of epiphany. A few are more contemplative and
serene. And this is actually quite paradoxical, since the scenes are so cleanly rendered that one has the sense that the painter has removed herself from them altogether, as if to underscore the fact that it is raw nature she is showing, which does not need a spectator to exist. The strong sense of emotional intentionality seems to emanate not from the technique but from the very scenes themselves.
The fidelity to nature is absolute here: there’s none of the idealism, say, of the Hudson River School. It’s as if the paintings had been commissioned by someone who wanted an accurate record of what the earth looked like before the environment was destroyed.
At the same time, what comes repeatedly is a strange sense of recognition of scenes never before experienced. There’s almost an “oh, that’s what you’re getting at” feeling accompanying the paintings as if they were making reference to a private language of nature-impressions that we all carry within us, and the metaphors they embody. Echoing that sense, the titles elicit deep associations: the green mossy highland is called “Rehashing Mythology” and a misty waterfall, “The Structural Depth of Meaning and Desire.” A panorama of grassy flesh-toned buttes standing in front of distant striated hills is called “Wilderness Does Not Locate Itself.”
Looking at Ms. Telfair’s work, with or without the titles, one becomes conscious of this emotional and aesthetic discourse between ourselves and the sights we gaze upon, whether in or out of a frame.
Ms. Telfair has brought within the confines of a gallery space the very act of contemplation of nature. The lines between the two kinds of contemplation – of art, of nature – are deliberately blurred here. After looking at these works, landscapes (real or imagined) are not seen the same way. An extra layer of consciousness has been brought into play.
Just the other day, I caught myself looking at the Connecticut River valley as if it were a Telfair painting. I could see the brushstrokes.
This essay was written by Jim Lipton, Professor of Computer Science