Landscape of the Gods is not your ordinary exhibition of landscape paintings, nor is it an ordinary group show. Some of the art featured here wouldn’t necessarily be labelled as landscape, and the works of the nine diverse artists featured have been intertwined, looped, and contrasted to explore interconnections with each other, and common themes associated with landscape while not necessarily depicting a landscape. The exhibition catalogue identifies the themes explored as the ceremonial, the mythical, the manmade, the dystopian, the inhabited and the emotive. But the binding agent here is the strange movement of time, particularly at the edges and between things. Time moves differently in Landscape of the Gods. It is out of sync, interrupted, distorted, and disjointed through the interweaving of different modes of time at play within the paintings of this exhibition.
As ever, the curation by Rebecca Scott here at Cross Lane Projects is a real strength, and at times the specific positioning of paintings produces qualities and dialogues between the works. The exhibition has been laid out in a way that encourages open exploration, wandering back and forth rather than linear progression.
Martin Greenland’s exquisitely painted landscapes at first glance seem traditional. Their deep and earthy palettes, heavy wooden frames, and carefully varnished sheen have a timeless quality where one could believe they were painted either last month or last century. The landscapes present picturesque countryside scenery, sometimes inhabited by mythical figures and religious buildings. In ‘Even Over Eden’ (2004) we see two figures in the dense landscape. One is sitting, turned away, and the other is in the foreground: a horned person, possibly a centaur, head bowed to the side with a look of weariness on their face. There is a suggested narrative here that remains intentionally mysterious.
There are visual references to mythology, photography, collage, and nineteenth-century landscape painting in Greenland’s works that are at once familiar and strange. Upon closer inspection of ‘Even Over Eden’ there are patches of water painted quite differently to the rest of the picture. This water has been painted so uncharacteristically flat amongst the neighbouring stones and shrubs that it sits alienated in the landscape, as though made of blue vinyl, collaged onto the painting. In ‘The Unredeemed’ (2008) there is an image of a centaur, looking towards the viewer as though posing for a photograph, amongst a foreground of what appears to be overexposed and blown out colours of a dry and earthy environment. The landscapes, with their topography and mythological figures are both of our world, and yet simultaneously other-worldly. They don’t quite operate in our known present, nor in our past, but quite possibly as portals to an alternative present.
In contrast, the neighbouring paintings by Rebecca Scott are unabashedly fresh, now, and very much in-the-room, so to speak. Scott’s paintings represent sweeping, romantic views of the Lake District in picture-postcard sentimentality on large canvasses. But these scenes have been interrupted by swirling painterly scrawls that loop around the pictures like spontaneous acts of graffiti. The paint on these canvasses is laden with such freshness and deliciously icing-like application that they seem still wet, and I become drawn into their sensuality. I get up close, and I’m sure I can smell the fresh oil paint, as Scott has managed to retain oil paint’s intrinsic syrupy indulgence from palette to canvas. Here, time is located firmly in the present, almost as though the works are still being painted. They have no past or future, only a here and now. Only, the landscape in Scott’s now is not quite graspable. It has been distorted and interrupted by the swirling, painterly scribbles. These works bring to mind the disconnect between the actual landscape and our perception of it. One only needs to be reminded of the recent news stories of sewage discharge in Lake Windermere to see how this is particularly relevant to the context of the Lake District.
Time and space move in a wholly different way again in the work of Julian Cooper. Cooper’s paintings are representations of the details of mountain overhangs from a close perspective, where ancient rock has been exposed by the mining and quarrying of the Lakeland fells. Here, time becomes something deep, something expansive, and something more eternal, but exposed only through the human excavation that uncovered them. Here, fast-paced human time, with its violence and consumption, exposes moments of immortal time. Perhaps these are moments for the gods.
In each of the three paintings by Cooper on display here, the paint itself is at times blotted, grainy and dense, and at times smooth, curved, and flat. There is an illusionistic and hyper-real quality to these works. The seemingly 1:1 scale is transformational, almost as though the mountain overhangs themselves have been transported inside the art gallery, using paint as a portal. Like the stone faces themselves, these paintings are at once wet and dry, smooth, and jagged, weathered, and unhurried.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the works of Bex Massey, Alex Giles, and Michael Petry were not really landscapes at all, and perhaps that’s the point of their inclusion. Each of these three artists points towards specific times and spaces, indicating presents and pasts shaped by traditions, icons, values, and conventions.
Giles with his post-painterly abstract paintings that enthusiastically reference the organic movement of forms, have a nostalgia for digital graphics of the late twentieth century shared in a different way by the work of Massey, whilst Petry’s painted text-based works remind us that not all that is seen can be understood, and not all that we believe can be seen.
Petry’s thirty-three paintings on show all feature block capital lettering on a single colour surface, spelling the name given to the concept of ‘heaven’ in different religions. All but two feature heavily painted lettering, standing aloft from the relatively flat painted monochromatic canvasses. The two exceptions to the rule are ‘Tian’ (2019) and ‘Europa’ (2019), which are made differently. Here, the words have been formed by the absence of paint. The viewer’s impulse is to look for significance, to question the decision by the artist to leave empty space, where otherwise there would have been a striking physicality. With each of these paintings our faith is tested with the absence of clear meaning, our only clues residing in abstract colour and written word.
Massey’s collaged compositions also tend to leave room for open investigation. They make use of imagery from pop culture and art history to evoke a clash between contemporary values and traditional virtues. The iconic Dana Scully (played by Gillian Anderson) from the X-Files features in all three of the paintings, perhaps most clearly in ‘Pilot’ (2021). Here we see a very forthright Scully collaged with painted imagery including the goddess Venus, and an annotated view of a dyke in the landscape. The term ‘dyke’ containing both connotations as a cut in the landscape and a derogatory term for a lesbian. Massey’s paintings present trails of clues, inuendoes, and puns to display a past-present, full of nostalgia and potential for further investigation.
Trails of clues also reside in the paintings of Alun Williams, reminiscent of the possibilities of the unseen in Petry’s works, or the ungraspable in Scott’s. In ‘Portrait of God’ (2014), God is represented as a Malevichian black square, confronting the audience of a drive-in cinema. Perhaps we are to think of God as Malevich thought of the black square: a ‘zero of form and emerged from nothing to creation.’ Placing this Malevichian God at a drive-in cinema also says something about entertainment and distraction, and contemporary humanity’s ability or inability to (re)connect with the natural world in meaningful ways.
Elsewhere, ‘Three Holy Virgins Attended by Angels’ (2014) communicates a disrupted narrative, like a poorly remembered dream or misconstrued story. Perhaps even two stories, misrepresented simultaneously. Like Greenland, Williams uses the romantic rolling hills and winding rivers of the English countryside as the setting for a scene imbued with iconography. Although unlike Greenland, the angelic figures in Williams’s paintings feel at odds with the landscape. There’s a child-like naivety to these figures in the foreground, appearing to have been collaged on top of the landscape, with a flatness and cartoon-like appearance. The figures in Williams’ work disrupt the landscape rather than merging with it, in a similar way to how Scott’s painterly scribbles disrupt hers. The figures also present numerous conflicting styles, some delicately crafted alongside others with a more gestural violence of expression.
The tree-like structure that is at the front and centre of ‘Three Holy Virgins’ is repeated and mirrored in the painting to the left of it, ‘Another Virgin’ (2014), and again in ‘God and Two Virgins’ (2014), becoming a motif or icon itself. In ‘Another Virgin’, the angelic figures have been reduced to the black outlines of four and a half (one being unfinished) cherubs, at the top right of the composition. Similarly, rather than stand in front of a picturesque landscape as it does in ‘Three Holy Virgins Attended by Angels’, the tree-like structure in this painting stands in front of the corner of what appears to be an unremarkable red brick wall. We are left to wonder if this is a more modern scene, where heavenly figures are less likely to be seen, or whether we are being shown multiple versions of the same fluctuating present. In this way, these paintings contain within them themes to do with edges. The edges between worlds, the edges between what can be seen, and what can be told.
Lee Maelzer’s paintings explore edges, too. ‘Back Steps’ (2011) presents an urban edge-land where metal handrails descend into thickets of densely painted leaves, and plants have taken over pathways, a scene within which nature has regained control. In ‘Wine Landscape’ (2023), a post-industrial, or perhaps post-war, alleyway is suspended in perpetual claret-tinted twilight and cluttered with litter and rubble. Discarded materials have become intertwined with weeds and shrubs, and paint becomes analogous for dirt. The paint has been mixed with thread, creating a surface which is clotted, coagulated, and viscous. Like Cooper’s overhangs, the texture and essence of the painting’s subject has been transported into the gallery, though unlike Cooper’s, this scene is a very human landscape, with a pressing sense of urgency and mortality.
Mark Fairnington’s paintings are saturated with bright light and vibrant colour. They offer details of objects and plant matter with a razor-sharp use of line, reminiscent of scientific illustrations. The contrast of cloudy skies and rolling misty hills, particularly in ‘Figure in a Landscape’ (2018), creates a sense of wistful yearning, contrasting a longing for the romantic with a stubborn attention to detail.
Landscape of the Gods is an exhibition that exposes ways of viewing the present from numerous perspectives, where present time is malleable, and can even become portals into alternative realities.
Landscape of the Gods, Cross Lane Projects, Kendal 29 July – 23 September 2023.
Neil Greenhalgh is an artist, writer, and lecturer based in Greater Manchester.
This review is supported by Cross Lane Projects.