Sensual Landscapes


Sensual Landscapes by Peter Frank
Art Historian and Critic

As plein air painters go, Jack Stuppin is something of an anomaly. He paints what he sees and paints as he feels; he paints in the moment and paints for later reconfiguration; he focuses on natural surroundings and he privileges the human gaze - in other words, he manifests all the dynamic contradictions upon which the practice, even the very idea, of plein air painting is grounded. But Stuppin's results are not those of most plein air painters. Rather than capture a fleeting second of atmosphere in the eternal passage of natural time, Stuppin immediately finds a monumentality - albeit a living monumentality - in the terrain and its living skin. The land before us will always be before us, Stuppin's work avers, shaped more or less as it is shaped. The vegetation coating the land will live and die and live and die and live and always change, perhaps drastically, in the process, but there will always be something alive on the face of this earth - providing, of course, that in our heedlessness we don't strip the land bare ourselves. And if we do, the land itself will still be there, stolid and reproving in its new nakedness - a nakedness that, in Stuppin's painting, it hints at even now. (Can we call this our "just deserts"?) Stuppin's art reasserts and celebrates the redoubtability of nature.

But it also reasserts and celebrates the redoubtability of art and of the human spirit. When he began painting en plein air in the late 1980s, Jack Stuppin was far less concerned with (although no less aware of) the history of art and the professional role(s) of the artist than he has become. Even if this did not allow Stuppin a veristic "capture" of time and place, it allowed his painting a less alloyed access to his own sensations, helping to establish a feedback loop between the seen world and the sensed that has impelled his work since. Stuppin's hand could not keep up with the virtuosic plein air tradition, so his eye had to work fast and his heart had to work faster. It is this aerobics of plein air that Stuppin exercises in every painting he makes - whether en plein air itself or back in the studio. And he long since found that the stylized, even abstracted, approach that came out of his brush was, yes, natural to him, adequate in its faithfulness to the appearance of the land, and perfect in its embodiment of his sensations (and by extension ours) to the overall experience of nature.

Although Stuppin's manner smoothes the contours of terrain and vegetation into almost patterned reason, and tames (or at least calms) the burro-like recalcitrance of oil pigment into comparatively genial cooperation, there is still a vivacious spirit he finds within and without, in his hand as in his view. Indeed, his work, increasingly, establishes an uninterrupted circuit between the polarities of his perception, inner sensation and outer observation. These are not landscapes by Jack Stuppin, they are landscapes of Jack Stuppin, "about" the artist no less and no more than about the natural space he inhabits.

In paintings such as Red Ocean Song, for example, or the aptly named Joy, details of the landscape are not just stylized, but transmuted, their colors heightened, as in the vivid crimson hillock that burgeons in the middle of Red Ocean Song, their contours sculpted, as in the roller-coaster slopes that dominate Joy - and, for that matter, in that painting's shrubs, each a Brussels-sprout-like bolus, and its trees, most notably the blue-green fir in the picture's middle, its foliage in a vigorous upsweep that reflects the painting's spirit of elation. Such landscapes are designed not only to provoke emotions, but to embody them. Red Ocean Song is a song of nature, both about nature - sung by Stuppin in paint - and by nature. Joy is not just joyous, it is joy itself - Stuppin's joy, ours, the trees' and bushes'. The poetic trope of attributing human emotions to non-human entities may be a corny concept; but it works for Stuppin, much as it has worked for painters throughout the last hundred-plus years.

Perhaps this flow of response, even of identity, results from Stuppin's devoting more and more time to living amongst the hills and clouds, ocean waves and clumps of bushes that constitute California's North Bay coastal landscape. More likely, the flow results from Stuppin's devotion of more and more time to the rendering of these views - that is, both to looking at the subject and to painting it, with a discipline born of passion and a focus born of awe. The rhythmic counterplays and expansive sweep of a shore painting like Bodega Head, where the knobby foam breaker caps mirror the striated rows of clotted clouds and the brown cliffs spill out like lava from coastal gorse and black rocks, constitute an orchestration of miracles, an evocation that strains credulity the way nature itself does in places like these. Likewise, the tawny ripples that comprise the flank Golden Hill shows us, an exaggeration of the real thing, will seem comic to anyone not familiar with California hills (or with their similar caricature in the landscapes other artists have painted in California since the state's original plein air school was active). But one glimpse of this or a similar hump anywhere west of the Sierras makes a believer of anyone; Golden Hill is still endearingly comical, but it is also entirely believable. Stuppin has painted the beingness of the hill, in a conflation of his consciousness with the hill's essence - a kind of Zen "Sound of Music," improbable, hilarious, moving.

Does Stuppin, then, "disappear" into the hill, into the landscape? By inference, he does so bodily; any trace of human presence, his or other', is absent from his vistas, and in fact the biggest liberties he takes with what he sees is in the erasure of human-made structures (although for the most part he finds views that have none to begin with). But spiritually as well, Stuppin can be said to be disappearing into the landscape. His identification with the Sonoma coast is thorough; his mind and eye are no longer simply situated at it, but have become to a great extent of it. He has effected in himself the exchange of the viewer's ego for the superego of the artist - and the id of the landscape itself.

Note that the ego-surrendering identification here is with the Sonoma coastal landscape, a very specific microclimate where the characteristics of California's semi-arid central valley meet and mix with the qualities of wild, untamed beach fronting on cold, relatively placid but constantly seething waters, all taking place on geologically active (even, in places, once-volcanic) terrain. This, as we see in an alternately verdant and sere picture like Fog, Golden Hill or in the bizarre - but in this region frequent - cloud and vegetation patterns of Cloud Parade, is a region of suddenness, of hardy brown grasses giving an almost animal-like hide to the muscular folds of big hills and small mountains while arrays of evergreens and gnarled bushes creep up their sides and clumps of flowers burst forth seasonally in gaudy displays of color (not to mention scent). The whole thing glimmers underneath a brilliant blue sky; the nearby sea may temper this sky with a soupcon of moisture, but it also reflects sunlight back up into the heavens. The resulting intensity of light diminishes only when the fog begins its daily march inland: what had sat like a thrown-off comforter on the other side of the rocks and dunes now comes in, to modify Sandburg's image, on big cat's feet, stalking and ultimately blanketing the landscape in a cool gray, more mysterious than dour. Stuppin has painted other places, but each time he has he has either to adjust his regard - to operate first from ego as well as observation - or to "cheat," and treat the new region as a variation on the Sonoma coast. These gambits have proved workable, even visually satisfying, but they lack the spiritual oomph Stuppin now gets, effortlessly, from painting the Sonoma coast.

Yes, this is a kind of regionalism. But it is not a defiant regionalism, a "regionalism" akin to a more-narrowed "nationalism." It is a regionalism of marvel, a regionalism of adoration and elective affinity. It is a regionalism sourced in the investigation of the exotic - Stuppin was born and raised in New York - that in the ecstatic intensity of the investigation has translated into identification with the observed. Stuppin works in and with the Sonoma coast as Asher Durand worked in and with the Hudson River Valley, as John Kensett worked in and with the Massachusetts coast, as Albert Bierstadt worked in and with the wide-open West, and as John Marin worked with New York City. Indeed, in spirit and in style, Stuppin's Sonoma recalls Marsden Hartley's Maine, although Stuppin is more gently factual, with little of Hartley's (or, for that matter, Maine's) cold turmoil.

Note, though, that Stuppin's first identification is with art itself, with the act of painting and the process of looking at paintings (and other artworks). There may be a factual (although not veristic) basis to his art, but it does not suppress the fulmination of the hand or the liberal intervention of the eye. A child of modernism, Stuppin lets the photographers make the pictures; he makes the paintings, and in doing so finds an ineffable facet to coastal Sonoma, amplifying its extraordinary qualities without losing its quotidian integrity. In this he slouches towards the codifications of subjectivity that we find practiced, even preached, by the northern European expressionists working a century ago in the eye of the modernist hurricane. Stuppin's work, in purpose and intensity, aspires to the transport - some of the transport, anyway - seen in the volatile, yet highly ordered, landscapes of Wassily Kandinsky and, especially, Alexei von Jawlensky, realized in the Munich exurb of Murnau. Stuppin, we can see, conjures the rills and ridges of the Sonoma coast with the same loaded brush as that with which Jawlensky caressed the Alpine foothills; and, while the color of the land allows Stuppin only intermittent access to the extravagant palette Jawlensky could bring to his much lusher surroundings, the attitude towards color is the same: let it rip, let it glow, let it spill its embarrassment of riches all over the retina. (Stuppin shares a Russian heritage with the two Blaue Reiter painters, and has attributed his love of color to, among other things, the splendors of the Orthodox rites that comprised an important part of his childhood.)

Where Stuppin finally diverges from Jawlensky and other early 20th-century landscape painters, Blaue Reiter and otherwise, is in his spiritual purpose. They strove to embrace the landscape, to be in the flow with it as if in flow with a lover. (Issues of domination, by the way, were secondary, or even beside the point, for these nature-worshipers, in whose number were included powerful women painters such as Gabriele Münter and Marianne von Werefkind.) Stuppin's goal is no less ambitious, but is at once more benign and more emphatically self-effacing: to flow with the landscape as if he were part of it. Whether or not this is a more modest goal, it is a less dramatic one. In its pictorial achievement, it achieves a picturesque quality, amplifying the attractive and simple aspects of the place. Stuppin has left to others the search for the sublime, which motivated the German painters and brought them finally into abstraction. But in not seeking the sublime, Jack Stuppin has found his own abstracted voice, a voice that does not speak of the landscape, or for that matter to it, but in it.

Peter Frank - Sebastopol, CA - December 2003