When I see paintings that do no more than photographs, I have to wonder why the more time-consuming medium has been chosen. One might argue that Sevierville-based artist Lisa Line could produce the effects she's achieved with a camera. However, the more I consider works in her current exhibit at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, the more I think she needs canvas and paint. Whereas photography reveals things "as they are"—at least from a specific vantage point during a fleeting moment in time—representational painting can accomplish something else. Given that a painting's content is more than its subject matter, an artist's control over what to include in an image is only one consideration. By showing us the recognizable and leading us to look at it differently, the "realist artist" also leads us to accept whatever else has become part of a "realistic" scene.
Almost all of Line's 13 medium-size paintings now on display contain trees, usually smack-dab in the center of her compositions. Her theme somehow escapes monotony, but a steady diet of it is sorta like a big bowl of chips without anything to dip them into. Nevertheless, the show is satisfying in its unity and it provokes some interesting questions. The only people Line depicts are very young or very old, and like her trees, they symbolize the life cycle. On occasion, domestic construction sites refer to trees eliminated, the origin of building materials taken for granted. A child kneeling in red clay beside a massive, half-finished house in Line's "Right Relationship" will, like the structure, become something else; security and prosperity are implied but not yet realized. The more we look, the more impressive Line's work becomes. At the same time, the questions I've referred to become more pressing when we are informed of Line's intentions.
In her artist's statement, Line describes her images as being about faith. She wishes to convey the benevolence, beauty, solidity, and hope she believes nature represents, saying, "these works [tell] us that there does exist a source of mercy for us. I often use strong compositional uprights as a metaphor for the reaching of ourselves toward God, and the reaching of God to us." She also says, "In every painting, I feel the urge to insist once again that our daily life, the minutes of our days, are connected to eternal life."
Line's in-your-face trees, however, are literally obstacles to seeing "the whole picture" of the landscape they inhabit. It's as if her subconscious self is reminding her that human perception is generally limited and that she need not precisely define her spiritual convictions. I may sound harsh, but if mountains are for Line symbolic of "protection, shelter, safety from enemies, [a] symbol for God-our-refuge," why does she so obstruct them? She acknowledges that such refuge is "in the distance...not right here, right now," but if her trees overwhelm the scene they occupy and block what lies beyond, they might be telling her something. They might signify very real limitations and our yearning to conquer them. I could be missing the point, but it seems that Line's true subject is desire; a reaching for meaning rather than meaning itself. As for the trees, a landscape artist friend of mine pointed out that Line's trees have been cut, re-cut, and "basically mutilated"—perhaps a comment on the guilt and shame surrounding desire.
Many of Line's titles suggest despair at what hampers the quest for meaning. "Mere Fruitless Trees of Ourselves," with its ladder too far from any of three trees to grasp their branches, is essentially an image of futility. The setting is awash with brilliant, inspiring light, and a ladder is available, but it is misplaced. "The Waste of Pears" features fallen fruit skirting a tree's trunk and is a title indicating loss and rot, although viewers might otherwise perceive the painting as positive, as being about abundance. Line says, "When you think about it, trees are a lot like human beings: individual, unique, ubiquitous, overlooked, undervalued, precious, necessary." Whatever words Line imposes, there are, of course, the paintings themselves. "The Little Cherry Tree" is exquisitely rendered and full of vitality, and I frankly don't care what it's called or whether or not it symbolizes something else.
"Better Than Life" places on old man in front of an old tree in winter, his arms stretched before him. What appears to be a nursing home looms on the horizon as he moves toward—what? the next life? Does he seek another world, or is he being pulled into one? His geomantic, entranced persona evokes a host of interpretations. The painting titled "I See My True Home In The Distance," showing an infant with a doll held firmly on an adult lap, further exemplifies Line's masterful handling of color. Despite lacking an emphasis on trees alone, the aforementioned works possess a parallel intensity. Line remarks, "These things speak about the human condition of need. It's part of being alive to need something, to desire something, to wait for something that will fill up some insufficiency." Ironically, the message found in her use of trees as metaphors could lead Line to embrace the infinite and find fulfillment in questions as well as answers.