Exploring the landscape
Talking with artist Caroline Reeves Johnson

Caroline Reeves Johnson relaxes in front of her oil painting "Meadow Receding" at the Karyn Gabaldon gallery on Tuesday./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Jules Masterjohn

During a recent visit to Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, a venue that frequently shows nationally and regionally acclaimed artists, I was pleased to come upon the work of Durango artist Caroline Reeves Johnson. Known primarily as a painter of the land, and more recently as a printmaker, she also is showing work at Karyn Gabaldon Fine Arts in Durango. On display in Durango are 12 new paintings that give a sense of Reeves Johnson’s most mature work, a synthesis of expressionistic color fields and naturalistic references to the landscape. Her recent works are “composite” paintings of places she has visited – images stored in her mind until time for their placement on canvas.

One aspect of Reeves Johnson’s emerging style is a delicate, gestural use of paint to describe broad areas within the landscapes. Perhaps this can be attributed to her interest in the work of Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn, who both use large areas of color, straightforwardly applied, to define their compositions. Reeves Johnson says that making monoprints has influenced her approach to painting because monoprinting is “unpredictable, looser and more immediate.”

It is easy to see why so many artists from our region choose the landscape as their subject matter. Look around – the land in the Southwest has a powerful presence. Reeves Johnson’s interest in the landscape as subject matter arises from her understanding of the identity of “place.” She offered, “I really feel the landscape is a defining source of our cultural character as North Americans – the best and the worst: freedom, self-reliance, abundance, wastefulness and self-righteousness. For me, the landscape embodies joy and peace but also the deepest melancholy.”

I sense this dichotomy in Reeves Johnson’s paintings, mostly through her chosen palette: at once bright and pastel and also earth-toned and subdued. Her expressionistic use of color is most obvious in the painting “Meadow Receding.” From across the gallery, this welcoming canvas appears to be a realistic painting of a meadow. As one approaches, he or she is drawn into an expanse of mauve and golden-yellow brushstrokes, the open meadow that covers the majority of the canvas. A row of trees on the left recedes into the background, inviting the viewer to run along the meadow’s edge. Surprisingly, amidst the darkness of the umbers and mahogany browns in the tree line, freely painted highlights of lavender and turquoise play along delicate white-barked tree trunks. Explaining this she said, “I am interested in luminosity and vibrancy while still being able to visually read the imagery in space.” The introduction of this unnatural hue into her landscape is evidence of Reeve Johnson’s joy finding its way onto the canvas, punctuating the dark, earthy tones with playfulness.

This unexpected use of color is found in many of her other canvases, including the gem of the exhibit, “Lone Tree.” Not surprisingly, this quietly dynamic painting was one of the first to sell, its compositional elements and ethereal quality an attractive combination. The picture plane of “Lone Tree” is divided into five horizontal bands of color, and within each are hints of the land’s topography. Water describes the lowest band, filling the foreground with broad strokes of cerulean blue, pale yellow and shining white; a solitary tree stands over its reflection at the edge of the aqueous body near the center of the painting. Across the middle, balancing the landscape between water and sky, are three darker bands of earthy greens and browns, a line of intensely saturated yellow streaks through the green. The singular brown tree, isolated in a band of green, is the focal point of the composition. This creates a visual tension that contrasts with the implied calmness of the repeating horizontal bands. Johnson says of this composition, “I have always been fascinated by the spaces along horizon lines and the spot where the woods meet the meadow. It is a simple form, very stable, and allows me to concentrate on color and surface.” The painting culminates in a creamy sky, lighter at the horizon where it hovers above an intense turquoise band, and darkening as it rises through pinks, yellows and periwinkle blue, so softly gradated it seems “real.”

Reeves Johnson’s landscapes feel familiar; it is easy to forget they do not depict real locations but are amalgams of various places. This new body of work reflects Reeves Johnson’s evolution as an artist. She began faithfully painting from direct landscape references like sketches or photographs and now allows herself to paint from memory or her sketchbook. “I may begin a painting based on a specific place, and by the time it’s finished, it may not have much to do with the specific place.” This liberating shift in her creative process occurred after some self introspection. “I asked myself, ‘Why do I want to paint this particular scene rather than that one?’ I couldn’t answer that very well any more, so it was time to do something different,” she recalled. “This change wasn’t something drastic, it evolved, and continues to evolve as I paint.”

Caroline Reeves Johnson’s exhibit will be on display at Karyn Gabaldon Fine Arts through Nov. 20. A reception will be held at the gallery on Fri., Nov. 4, from 5-8 p.m. Her monoprints are also on display at San Juan College’s Henderson Fine Arts Center in Farmington through Nov. 14. The exhibit “The Four Corners Monoprinters” includes work by Farmington artist Janet Burns and Durango artists Maureen May and Paul Pennington. For more info call, (505) 566-3464.



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