If the Hudson River School painted landscape as a manifestation of God, the works on display at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Uncertain Terrain: Selections from the KMA Collection portray landscape as a reflection of man. Though the human figure is largely absent, the exhibition—chosen from the permanent collection under the conceit of variations on landscape—explores people struggling within, or unleashed upon, our various environments. The focus is on painting, mostly American, and strikingly contemporary, with the majority of works dating from the 21st century, a handful from the 1990s, and only two from the mid-20th century (Herb Creecy’s small plaster experiment from 1965 and Knoxvillian Robert Van Deventer’s own foray into abstraction, circa 1950s).
Ideas of landscape are occasionally suggested by the material itself (Creecy’s chunky plaster, Tomory Dodge’s characteristic globs and ridges of paint) and more frequently through traditional pictorial representation. The most direct are those paintings that criticize humans’ attitude of dominance over, and destructive impact upon, the land, including Chuck Forsman’s “Park”—a parking lot imposed upon tree-topped, woozily rolling hills—and Alison Moritsugu’s “Wilderness.” Meanwhile, Dodge may lack the singular purpose of the message pieces, but his skill is apparent. His “Mirage” is one of only a small sample of postmodern abstract expressionism, and with magnetic colors and referential elements, it’s one of the downright prettiest, most linger-worthy works in the hall. A different sort of lovely, Moritsugu’s disseminated landscape is painted on a loose, wall-mounted cluster of cut logs, fragmenting the reverential depiction. It’s a catchy presentation, the pieces requiring the viewer to fill in gaps to make the picture whole, as are Jim Campbell’s LED street scene (flickeringly articulated by the automobile and pedestrian movement within it) and Charlotta Westergren’s wall-devouring blue-green-aquamarine sequin-on-corkboard “Sighting.” Viewing the shimmering expanse of the latter might lull you into a game akin to finding familiar shapes in the clouds on a lazy spring afternoon. Is that a bird? A wolf? Perhaps a cloud?
And then there’s the cityscape. Man-made vistas appear in various states of decay or destruction, such as in Giles Lyon’s “Empire.” The painting is layer upon layer of color and chaos, references to structures and fauna, painted over a dozen years, resulting in a 12-foot-high tableau of Armageddon come to Whoville. Jered Sprecher’s “A Type of Magic” toggles between graffiti and blueprint, an endless hallway and a sealed door, something of an M.C. Escher in Krylon. Richard Galpin’s “Cluster Cirrhosopolis” was created by subtracting images from a collage of photographs, and what remains is an abundance of white space with snatches of brick, metal, vinyl, and wood that color groups of anchorless rectangular boxes that threaten to build upon each other, but never do.
Speaking of missed connections, people do occasionally enter into the image in more than implied terms, nowhere more frequently than in Brian Novatny’s two drawings on display. Novatny’s figures, several in each drawing, are robbed of context, entering the field ungrounded from all directions and at all angles, never interacting, while half-erased sketches float here and there. From nowhere (where else?) a vine pattern reminiscent of upholstery appears on a woman’s dress. If one existed, you’d think she was fading into the background. Like the prescription antidepressant commercial. Patty Chang, in the photographic print “The Extension of Nothing, Removing the Floor in Pieces - #3,” based on a performance piece, also causes her figure to hover by standing on a mirror covered with water. Reflected in the disorienting, unsteady surface is not only the domed ceiling of the church in which she stands, but also, of course, the artist herself, wearing a skirt, looking down to face her image. One is hard-pressed to think that Novatny’s figures matter at all, and as for Chang’s, little else does.
Included in the exhibit are four pieces up for purchase, one to be chosen by members of the museum’s Collector’s Circle. Galpin’s peeled photograph is one, and the rest are large paintings, most expressing a kind of detachment. Two involve horses, including Hungarian-born Zsolt Bodoni’s “Hall with Horses,” a deeply shadowy scene with washes left to drip to the bottom of the canvas, while controlled, energetic brush strokes create a group of horses galloping, upside down, at the top. In the animals’ murky surroundings—like all the depictions in Uncertain Terrain of potency and isolation, creativity and spoil—there’s no locating the driving source of the action and frenzy, but their presence is palpable, propelled by the picture’s orientation.