There’s a big conversation going on about epic landscapes, people’s impact upon the wilderness, and personal connections to nature. It involves four contemporary artists and American master Thomas Cole, mid-19th century landscape painter and visionary, through February 12 at the Albuquerque Museum.
Plus, visitors are able to step back in time to visit Cole’s studio, arranged much as it was at the moment of his untimely death at the age of 47 – an unfinished canvas, paint palettes, his paint box, plaster casts, and mementos of his wilderness walks and trips abroad.
This section of the four-in-one exhibition is Thomas Cole’s Studio: Memory and Inspiration. The curators have also surrounded the studio recreation with a wide range of Cole’s studies and finished works, including his last completed commissioned work. Take a closer look in our Flickr album.
Cole redefined American landscape painting in the 1830s and 1840s by merging the style of romantic European landscapes with the dramatic skies, vistas, and mountains of New York’s Adirondack wilderness. His work kick-started the Hudson River School of landscape painting, and by the time of his untimely death at age 47, he was America’s best known and best loved artist.
During his life (1801-1848), Cole witnessed how pristine American wilderness was changed by proliferating settlements, roads, bridges, mills, and commerce along the rivers. Sometimes he chose to paint sights, like Niagara Falls, minus human intrusion; other times he gently inserted “civilization” into magnificent landscapes, as in Schroon Lake.
Cole had been a mentor to innovative landscape painters like Durand, Church, Kensett, and Cropsey. When Cole passed away suddenly, they were devastated. His wife left his studio just as it was, and for the next ten years she welcomed painters to make the pilgrimage to visit it, spend time, and gain inspiration.
Visitors enter this exhibition and confront Cole’s large 1838 work, Dream of Arcadia, showing a mythical time when civilization existed in harmony with nature. Can this ideal state truly exist?
The Thomas Cole National Historic site, which organized three of the four shows, answers this question through the eyes of two well-known contemporary artists – Kiki Smith, who owned a house along a creek a short distance from where Cole lived, and Shi Guori, who created camera obscura images at Hudson Valley sites where Cole stood and painted.
Kiki Smith: From the Creek is an immersive exhibition populated by the birds, beasts, insects, and plants along Catskill Creek – an area that Cole walked and knew well.
Visitors look up, down, and around to see owls, eagles, wolves, and pheasant peering back at them from perches, tapestries, frames, and vitrines…observing and being observed. Take a look at here.
Kiki’s work always brings an air of other-worldly mystery. Here, it’s easy to enjoy all of her varied creations, which display her deep connection to nature and ask us to contemplate the cycles of life that busy people sometimes forget to notice. Cole’s paintings had the same impact.
Shi Guori: Ab/Sense – Pre/Sense presents monumental camera obscura images of landscapes Cole painted in the Hudson Valley 180 years ago. When he was growing up in China, Guori experienced the shock of rapid environmental disruption as Mao’s Cultural Revolution transformed the countryside.
Guori studied Cole’s documentation of similar 19th-century transformation in the Northeast, and traveled back to sites that Cole documented to bear witness to natural settings – somewhat still undisturbed – that resonated with Cole.
Guori built large camera-obscura tents, sat inside for up to 72 hours, and exposed light-sensitive paper to create his images. Images of Cole’s oil paintings at the same site are mounted nearby with Guori’s meditations on the experience.
In one case, Guori turned Cole’s own sitting room into a camera, capturing not only furniture that he would have used, but showing the image of nature that Cole surely would have spent hours gazing upon. View more of Guori’s work here.
The fourth exhibition, Nicola López and Paula Wilson: Becoming Land, present large-scale environmental meditations on Southwestern desert landscapes. The Albuquerque curators selected these two popular New Mexico artists to get a bit of cross-cultural discussion going with Mr. Cole.
Glimpse some of the work in their gallery here.
Wilson, who works in Carrizozo, creates gigantic, mixed-media installations that prompt viewers to consider the interconnection among different people, desert landscapes, agricultural technologies, and even the debris left by civilization.
López, who works and teaches in New York, presents a large-scale cyanotype. Unlike Guori, who traveled to the Catskills to create his ghostly images with light, López was unable to travel during the pandemic and made this monumental work at home with the materials around her – a driveway, nearby desert plants, and the blazing New Mexico sun.
Congratulations to the Albuquerque Museum for inviting Thomas Cole’s team to collaborate in mounting such a beautiful, thought-provoking show.