In 1973, Norman Maclean retired from his post as a celebrated Professor of English at the University of Chicago, where he taught Shakespeare and other poets for more than forty years. Though he stayed in the Second City during the academic months, each summer the professor would travel to Montana, the state in which he was raised, to fly fish and to live in the cabin he and his father built at Seely Lake in 1922. Tales and memories from Montana ultimately served as the foundation for a book: A River Runs Through it and Other Stories, which immediately won great popular and critical acclaim for its vigorous, efficient prose and hauntingly suggestive meaning.
But prior to its 1976 publication by the University of Chicago Press (their first ever published work of original fiction), no less than three prominent publishers on the East Coast turned down Maclean’s book, which they derided as too “western.” One wrote back to Maclean alerting him of the fact that “these stories have trees in them.” The publishers’ wariness of “western” fiction was perhaps not altogether unfounded, if egregiously misapplied. Indeed, literature in that genre frequently revels in sentimentalism and cliché. But then, the fault there is with the writing, not the setting. Maclean’s writing is wonderful, and brings him out of cliché.
Still, I couldn’t help but think of that publisher’s vulgar and ignorant rejection note—“these stories have trees in them”—when I saw Josephine Halvorson’s recent exhibition, “As I Went Walking,” this month at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Halvorson’s paintings also have trees in them, but the New Yorkers that filled the Chelsea gallery didn’t seem to mind. Nor should they have—like Maclean’s writing, Halvorson’s language of paint transcends the sentimental trappings that the natural world can pose.
Halvorson (also a teacher—she taught at Yale for a number of years and now chairs Boston University’s graduate painting program) starts and finishes each painting over the course of one day, traveling to sites in western Massachusetts to work en plein air. There she has depicted the trunks of trees, adorned with moss, POSTED property signs, ribbons, and trail blazes. Making tightly cropped, life-sized depictions of subjects with extremely shallow space, Halvorson is in direct conversation with masters of trompe l’oeil such as William Harnett and John F. Peto. The historical reference to “fool the eye” technique, however, makes an odd bedmate with the remarkable forthrightness with which the paint itself moves once one gets up close to Halvorson’s canvases. In this way, Halvorson’s work resonates with other modern and contemporary painters such as Lois Dodd, Catherine Murphy, and Neil Welliver. Her alla prima, “all-in-one-go” approach results in a candid surface that attests to the physical construction of the paintings.
And this construction is intoxicatingly smart. The extreme efficiency with which Halvorson moves paint to track surface, color, and space conveys an Alex Katz–like coolness, but also opens the work up to complex subtleties of space. Halvorson’s striating, wet-on-wet brushwork evokes the natural textures of bark and bark-stripped wood, asserting a sort of tactile authority for the paintings and further intensifying the dialectic between seen subject and painted object.
The rhythmic patterns of the natural world seem relevant as well to the formal structure of the paintings. The repeated forms of bark on a tree, or the grain and knots on a plank of wood, establish an overall foundation within the painting that seems to slip away up close, where one may notice the random chaos of natural life that Halvorson inscribes by cutting into unbroken swaths of paint surface with new, sensitive marks that betray every minute quiver of the hand. In the gallery’s front room, strange gouache and silkscreen works on paper with depicted strips of yellow measuring tape that hover above the natural image are interspersed among the more numerous and conventional oil paintings. Halvorson’s interest in painting these manufactured black ticks makes more sense when considered next to the pattern and repetition of nature and biology.
Though their color system is generally tonal, these paintings are in fact quite sensitive to the subtleties of chromatic light. The most “colorful” parts of the paintings are often those spots where one might have expected to find only drab gray or white. Here, nuanced modulations of hue conform to the similarly nuanced understanding of shallow space that Halvorson confidently expresses.
The exhibition seen as a whole, especially when one thinks about Halvorson’s process, takes on the character of a photo-essay. The paintings track the relationship between human detritus—those abandoned trail ribbons, POSTED signs, etc.—and the natural elements currently in the active process of reclaiming their forest. Time is a matter of great conceptual importance. The paper signs are in various states of disrepair. Some have only a few small rips and appear newly posted. Others, ones that have completely fallen off their trunk, we can remember only by lingering scraps, remaining nails, and the ghostly squares of clean bark into which green moss has not yet begun to creep.