Jack Stuppin’s Exhilarating Landscapes
by Mark Van Proyen
Professor of Art History, San Francisco Art Institute
Contributing Editor, Art Week magazine
"In landskip, inanimates are principal: 'tis the earth, the water, the stones, and rocks which live. All other life becomes subordinate."
An Essay on Painting, Shaftsbury (1713)
During the final decade of the 20th century, it was fashionable to view the entire idiom of landscape painting in terms of its representation of civilization's "imperial" power over the land, casting it as the means of conveying a kind of pseudo-historical myth and idealized proof of the rightness of civilization's dominion over nature. Witness W.J.T. Mitchell's claim that "landscape might be seen more profitably as something like the dreamwork of imperialism," ... if Kenneth Clark is right to say that "landscape painting was the chief artistic creation of the nineteenth century," we need at least explore the relation of this cultural fact to the other chief creation of the nineteenth century - the system of global domination known as European imperialism.(1) Of course, statements like this can also be taken as the artifacts of a another kind of dreamwork; that being the casting of academia's relationship to late 20th century history as a wishful attempt to re-determine the corporately controlled present via an exegetical framing of the not-so-mythical past. As such, it can be said to evade the important - indeed, the crucial issue of our time, that being the one which asks how we might most fully inhabit our own moment in our own time, disengaged from the pull of superordinating presuppositions and in un ambivalent possession of a psychically self-sufficient moment of temporary isolation from an insane world overdetermined by policy mandates and the rote groupthinks which are bred from an endless and irresolvable contest of cultural politics.
Jack Stuppin's landscape paintings are remarkable for the directness and clarity with which they address themselves to this issue of spontaneous psychic inhabitation, and because of this, they take us to places where the angels of anxious sanctimony fear to tread. Not that they do anything wrong; on the contrary, theirs is the most innocent and uncontroversial of artistic tasks, that being the capture and alignment of the momentous confluence of time, place and atmosphere which memorably comprises the irrepressible psychic scenery which cultural politics always seeks to deny and drown out. And yet, it cannot and will not be denied, because all of the abstract information in the world cannot even begin to compete with the tangibility of actual experience in terms of real impact on human memory, however precise, coherent and well-ordered such information might pretend to be. In the end, memory will of necessity trust experience over hearsay, and observable pattern over even the most logically consistent of speculative possibilities. To state the same thing in plainer words, we can say that the meanings that memory makes always places experiential moments in its forefront, emphasizing them as vivid markers for expedient recovery as well sustaining them as keynotes and catalysts for further investigations. This stems from the fact that we are all fated to be haunted by images even as the will to self-protection makes us skeptically suspicious of sermons and diatribes, and images are of necessity always located in some kind of place.
Stuppin's landscapes address themselves to exactly this notion of perpetually-present memory in that they always seek to collapse and cement the difference between time-present and time-past, re-making them as one-and-the-same as an all-at-onceness which reminds us of the popular truism stating that time is God's way of keeping everything from happening all at once. Open-minded yet decisively assured, Stuppin's paintings lift us to the Olympian vantage of geological time where everything pretty much does happen all at once, again-and-again, and they are remarkable for the different paths that they take to carry us to the threshold of that vantage, giving us both its complex topographic texture and well as its eternal panoply of elements - the difference-within-wholeness that is the very essence of the long tradition of landscape painting as it continues to exist in Europe, Asia and North America. If we ascertain within these works a once-upon-a-time magic, then we are also reminded of the delightfully inescapable fact that said time and place is our own here-and-now. Stuppin's paintings remind us that it is the land itself that is the place which contains all possible places (as both Ur-source and final teleological destination), so they make a perfect, almost heroic sense in that they portray, and thus contain the thing that is destiny tells us will finally contain everything else.
Laboring within the long shadow of both Kantian and Hegelian Idealism, the German art historian Max J. Friedlander stated what has since become a truism for the modern reception and practice of landscape painting: land is the thing-in-itself, landscape the phenomenon.(2) Even though Stuppin's paintings always take a specific geographical location as their point of departure, their "landscape-ness" should primarily be understood as a model of the mind in so far as they reveal themselves to be idealized imaginings of an a temporal perpetuity. In this, they are demonstrations of the rigors and vigors of an everymind which seeks to wrap itself around the complexities of any given situation that strikes its fancy. To be a bit more precise, we should probably say that Stuppin's ebullient landscapes are models of being which the mind has chosen to inhabit with a set of specific temperamental priorities and consistent attitudes: obstreperous, playful and perhaps a little impatient to reach a pictorial conclusion about a subject that can never be concluded. Perhaps this recognition casts the repeated effort to reach such a conclusion as a kind of repetition-compulsion giving way to momentary Phyric victories which provide a quick and essential glimpse of that larger-than-lifeness which can only regard the so-called drama of our own existence as a short and rather brutish epiphenomena. But it also gets us closer to how the land can become a site for the projection of a wealth of subliminal meanings which reflect the whole array of styles-of-experiencing which we call life.
Other writers have alluded to some of these meaning in vivid and provocative terms: for John Fitz Gibbon,(3) Stuppin's "primitive" landscapes are condensed cornucopias of nature's delectable abundance ... paeans to the benevolent vision of plenitude symbolized by the many-breasted goddess Diana of Ephasus. Sounding an almost diametrically opposed note, Donald Kuspit has pointed to how they reveal the fact that "the American landscape is no longer a demonstration of Emerson's spirit in the fact of nature, but rather of the harsh facts themselves, in all their pristine indifference to human existence. Where spirit once spread over the vast panorama of America's unspoiled nature like a benign morning mist, making every detail of plant and mineral and sky and cloud glow with sublime intensity, in Stuppin's pictures the mist has been burned away by a ruthlessly bright sun, leaving behind the raw facts of nature uncontaminated by either divine or human presence."(4) Even though we might think that these statements are at odds with each other, we should take pause to consider the fact that they take different individual works, or at least different clusters of Stuppin's typical subject matter as their respective points of literary departure. Clearly, Fitz Gibbon is thinking of the perfervid spring and summer moods of pastoral works such as Mesa on Ghost Ranch (1999), or Hill at Wharton Hollow (1998), where rude bursts of sumptuous foliage impinge upon successive ranges of undulate hills and pillowy valleys which are typically regarded from an elevated panoramic vista. Kuspit's assertion of the immutable remorselessness of nature is revealed in the upsurging rocks and barren crags pictured in paintings such as Main Top from Lighthouse Hill, Farallon Islands (1995), or perhaps in the sun-scorched hills pictured in Fog and Coastal Mountains, Sonoma County (1996), Both of these paintings take the dramatic confrontation of sun, sea, and land all pounding hard against one another as their subjects, and they remind us of the fact that Herman Mellville's grim vision of nature as a place where all creation "be tooth'n and fang'n one another" is just as characteristic of the American spirit as are the meditative idylls of transcendental nature mystics such as Thoreau and Emerson.
Other epiphanies are revealed for our viewing pleasure in Stuppin's paintings. Blossoming fruit trees of the type pictured in Three Plums (1997) and Almond Trees, University Farm (1997), are painted in a way that typically emphasizes their brilliantly efflorescent chromatics, all-the-while laboring to suppress excessive detail in a way that makes them seem more like the idealized remembrances of a particular moment rather than the specific pictorial recollection of a given location. These works literally pop into our visual word, seeming almost improbable in their convulsive bushiness. At first glance, their picture-spaces appear to be flattened in the distilled, economic manner of those painters which we associate with Modernist movements such as Fauvism, Die Brucke Expressionism or the Nabis. This flatness, combined with these work's electric colors (which never become sour or overripe) quickens our eye, making us remember what it was like to be particularly alive to a particular moment in a particular place that is in itself particularly alive. This is accomplished by the way that the paintings prompt us to achieve high speed in our apprehension of the interrelation of complex pictorial incidents as they coalesce into the general view. It also beseeches us to savor the exhilarating chromatics of that view, forcibly re-acquainting us with the omnipresent epiphanies that are always lurking amid moments of everyday perception.
It is at this point that we realize that there are specific particulars inhabiting these scenes, uniquely memorable ones at that. These are revealed in the form of seemingly improbable details that seem somewhat insignificant in themselves, but in fact are the telltale giveaways to the actuality of the scenes portrayed by these works. To those who are familiar with the Napa, Sonoma and Marin County backroads that Stuppin most often uses as his en plein air studio, the shock of recognizing these details creates a kind of credibility of remembrance in that we can compare our memory of these locations with Stuppin's fanciful rendition of it - thereby allowing entry into *seeing* that location in the specific frame of mind and perhaps even the specific imaginary moment in which the artist initially viewed it. For those who are not blessed with such geographic familiarity, those details offer themselves up as contributing textures which again remind us that landscape is always more than a mere geological parable. Rather, it is the disclosure of a cyclic narrative of becomings and diminishments which locate both as the polar points of some perpetual cosmic respiration, to which we are all connected regardless of whether we recognize it or not. But the momentousness of this recognition is enhanced if we are also able to recognize the precise moment from which it stems.
It is in this use of specific incident to anchor and apply texture to the general scene that we see the true character of Stuppin's art. His paintings neither seize the topical nor insist on the authority of the general view as an exclusive procrustean province, opting instead to unite these disparate polarities into a flexible, almost paradoxical continuum. They are "down to earth" even as they are never mired in it, always choosing to be unabashed in partaking of whatever pleasure are offered by time and place without making any kind of a moral issue over the powers which shape those moments, which at their essence are always indifferent to the anxieties and conceits of such powers. Once that indifference is noted, the land comes out from behind its passively picturesque shadow and shows itself to be a frisky Poseidon frolicking with the shy creatures of his endlessly fascinating dominion, revealing its supple musculature while remaining confidant and relaxed, unpossessed by any crippling tension bred of an apraxic self-consciousness.
Throughout the past two centuries, many painters have returned to working in and with the landscape to partake of the rejuvenation and spontaneity that goes hand-in-hand with a momentary liberation from the enforced miserablism that is bred from seemingly endless and ever-more arduous quotidian routine. Some, like Gaugain, have never looked back, and in fact they made it their business to stay as close to the land for as long as possible, knowing that it would take much longer than an ordinary lifetime to unlock its knot of secrets and exhaust its many pictorial possibilities. I suspect that Stuppin can rightfully count himself among those artists who have taken the land's temptation to the point of almost going native with it. He certainly continues to find new vistas to inhabit and respond to, and the work seems to grow ever-closer to revealing what the Taoists call "the living breath of land and rock." In this, Stuppin's work can be said to respond to same vitalist impulse that motivated and inspired the scholar-painters of the Sung dynasty almost a millennium ago:
"Landscapes are large things. He who contemplates them should be at some distance; only so is it possible for him to behold in one view all shapes and atmospheric effects of mountains and streams. It has been truly said, that among the landscapes, there are those fit to walk through, those fit to contemplate, those fit to ramble in or to live in. All pictures may reach these standards and enter the category of the wonderful; but those fit to walk through or to contemplate are not equal to those fit to ramble in or live in ... the wise man's yearnings for woods and streams is aroused by the existence of such beautiful places ...This may be called not losing the fundamental idea." (5)
It is in the way that Stuppin's paintings embrace "the fundamental idea" of psychic inhabitation that we see their importance and value. These are works that prompt us to that inhabitation, and in so doing, "do something for us," that is, they facilitate our understanding of connectedness to the living onement that is both time and place. They prompt us to stop pretending to believe in the reality of the speculative and the intangible by reminding us of the tangible albeit unfathomable mysteries which lurk in that which is immediately at hand.
- (1) W.J.T Mitchell, Imperial Landscape, in W.J.T. Mitchell (ed.) Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994. p. 10.
- (2) Quoted in Jed Perl, Earth, (1997) in Eyewitness: Report from an Artworld in Crisis, New York, Basic Books, 2000. p. 171.
- (3) John Fitz Gibbon, A Barmecide Feast, Barmecide Feast: Landscapes and Figures by Jack Stuppin (exhibition catalog) Fairfax, CA. Bradford Gallery/Pegasus Press, 1996; pp.2-3.
- (4) Donald Kuspit, At the Edge of the World, (exhibition catalog), New York, Nieman Gallery, Columbia University, 1998. pp. 4-5
- (5) Kuo Ssu, The Great Message of Forests and Streams, (c. 1050 C.E.), in The Chinese on the Art of Painting, edited with an introduction by Osvald Siren, New York, Schocken Books, 1963. pp. 43-44.