Utilizing idiosyncratic techniques that are both playful and strategic, New York-based Melissa Brown has transformed traditional landscape painting into a magical meditation on form and perception. For “Palisades,” her sweeping study of the topography of the Palisades Interstate Park on the west bank of the Hudson River, she draws upon her extensive printmaking skills and sensitivity to such disparate genres as lyrical abstraction, Japanese Ukiyo-e and skate graphics to capture the vistas observed over a year of trips through the park.
All 12 recent paintings are executed on raw canvas that has been saturated with dye in hazy earth tones. Brown then builds vibrant tableaux with layers of oil paint through a complex procedure of stenciling and monoprinting. Shifting between actual geologic forms and phantasmagoric apparitions, the cliffs, trees, leaves and waves of these landscapes are bathed in a supernatural radiance that is at once ancient and immediate.
For Parvenu View (2011, 48 inches square), we face the Hudson River, hovering high enough in the cliffs to induce a subtle vertigo. At the top of the canvas the apartment buildings of the Bronx skyline jut up from across the river, echoing the verticality of the columnar rocks glimpsed at the bottom of the painting. The same palette of grays, greens and purples used for the buildings is repeated in the two stately tree trunks standing in the extreme foreground, cropped by the top and bottom edges of the canvas. Gnomish faces are cunningly stenciled onto the bark, turning these trees into totem poles. Swirling waves from the Hudson cut through each tree, mimicking the effects of sunlight on water. The misty ripples call to mind Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstractions, whereas the colorful cartoonish facial features retain the vibrancy of a skateboard silkscreen. Brown seems to relish this potent cocktail of high and low cultural references.
Peanut Cascade Marker (2012, 28 by 19 inches) is a close-up study of a tree trunk that still evokes a sense of the surroundings. The pastel blue and purple background has the murky richness of a Helen Frankenthaler while retaining a certain tie-dyed slapdash bliss. The trunk’s bark is dark and rich, with impastolike layers of paint adding a weathered feel to emerging faces. The tree fits into the Art Brut esthetic but also resembles the talking apple trees from The Wizard of Oz.
In Overlord Envy (2012, 60 by 44 inches), the landscape is full of grand gestures and fleeting moments, like the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints (translated as “pictures of the floating world”) that seem to inspire Brown. The iridescent background is punctuated by brilliant slabs of stone and wispy blades of vegetation. Pale blue trees stretch regally toward a castle of cliffs; the facial expressions here appear almost reverential. Sheets of paper float in and out of view, reminding us of our presence as interlopers in this natural setting. Yet Brown’s fantastical world allows us to be joyful participants in an alchemy of vision.