Light fantastic 

Paint Out captures the landscape moment

You don’t have to go to art school to appreciate art. If anyone tries to tell you that you do, whap them with their own easel.

You especially don’t have to go to go to art school to appreciate the work of the roughly 20 landscape artists from all over Montana who participated in the 2004 Paint Out, a group exercise in plein air painting, the results of which are currently on display at the gallery.

En plein air (“alfresco” in Italian) basically means painting outdoors with existing light—specifically, attempting to capture the caprices of constantly changing light with color. What better plein air playground than Montana, and who better to adjudicate than people who actually live here? If ever an art exhibit were to play to democratic principles and regional sympathies, this had better be it.

Plein air painting isn’t supposed to be about permanence or the ideal; it’s about the moment, so there are a couple of things that Montana landscape painters for damn sure better get right. Like haze. Like the tonal feast of a single cumulus cloud, brilliant white through a range of pinks, plums and periwinkles. Like the verge between blankets of evergreens and exposed rock on distant mountains. Like water—its glare, its partial translucence, the challenges of depicting its movements as well as its stillness. Let’s not be coy about it: We’re talking individual impression versus collective memory and observation, and a Montana plein air landscape is going to stand or fall on the strength of minute details and myriad unquantifiables. The pressure is on for these painters, and so it should be.

Happily, everyone gets everything mostly right. Where another few artists stray, it’s mostly a matter of wishful thinking about what should be there—the painting equivalent, perhaps, of walking around burdened by some bon mot you’ve just been dying to squeeze into a conversation.

There’s a jarring streak of Fauvist turquoise, for example, right across the middle of Janet Sullivan’s “Summer at the Ranch” ($650). It’s tiny, seemingly insignificant—and just enough to break the spell. Take us out and show us the turquoise, dammit! The floating planes of water and vegetation in Sullivan’s “Afternoon Reflections” (also $650), on the other hand, cast a spell of their own.

LA Stevens is even more daring with stabs of rogue color than Sullivan, but, again, not always successful. Stand back a few feet from “The Bitterroots” ($1,350) and all you see is the streaks of coral representing—what? Gravel? Clay banks? Exposed sandstone? Sunset on feldspar? Seriously, this is one exhibit where you shouldn’t have to overthink the moment by pausing to puzzle these things out! The evening mauves of Stevens’ “Daughter of the Sun Mountain,” however, provide adequate compensation.

Not surprisingly, many Paint Out artists went straight for the peaks, which is unfortunate only in that there’s plenty of other, more underrepresented stuff around these parts to shake a brush at. Good old Trapper Peak, a point-and-shoot magnet of a mountain, gets a lot of oil here, too. It starts to look weary after about the 10th painting. Ditto all the rivers and streams. After about 25 similar views—and not to impugn any individual works, here—they start to run together into a kind of riparian mush. Ron Ukrainetz, a dab hand at mountains, at least imbues his water with a kind of rowdy personality, typified by the stream that looks like it’s trying to lift an island up and shove it to the bank (“Island in the Stream,” $500). Or maybe the island has just had enough of the water and is trying to get away. A little wiggle-room for interpretation is permissible as long as the moment itself is still accessible.

The high gloss on Steve Setzer’s oils forces the gallery visitor to view the painting from a 45-degree angle. It’s partly just the installation and the light from the street, but even so: What’s this “Autumn on the Front Range” ($1,800) business when everything in the exhibit is supposed to have been painted during the last days of July and the first days of August? “The Vineyard” (also $1,800) fares much better, as does an untitled work—an anonymous stream—that truly does capture the feeling of standing in cool shade. Tom English’s “Bitterroot Patterns” is a similar success—the feeling of standing in the shadow of a big cloud with the sun still shining all around you.

Oils prevail in the Paint Out, but the relatively few artists using pastels manage some things the others apparently can’t. Steven Oiestad’s “Bison Range” ($750) has got at least three things dead-on: road dust, cured-out grass and the pinkish haze of knapweed. Not quite as ooh-ahh as Trapper Peak or a shady streambed, but still worth their weight in purple mountains’ majesty.

The results of the 2004 Montana landscape artists’ weeklong Paint Out can be viewed through the end of August at the Dana Gallery. Call 721-3154 for more information.

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