I always lose track of the number of switchbacks it takes to get from Encinal Canyon to the top of Sandstone Peak. At 3,111 feet, it is the highest point in the local Santa Monica Mountains, and the view from the top is magnificent. So many familiar Southern California landmarks are visible in one colossal sweep—Palos Verdes, San Gorgonio, the Northern and Southern Channel Islands, even the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara. The toothy ridge of transverse mountains forms a distinctive horizon above the expansive valley of human activity below. Upon reaching the summit, it is difficult to resist the urge to commemorate the scene—to somehow contain its transcendence and bring it back with me. Yet looking at the tiny luminescent camera screen with its still tinier approximation of this grand spectacle, I wonder if it’s really possible. I linger upon the view, hoping to fix the experience in my memory, then, with some hesitation, I click the shutter.

The natural world and its prominent geological features are common subjects in a countless array of images. Mountains, canyons, rocks, crashing waves, islands, lakes, deserts, and woodlands—these are the signifiers and shorthand indicators of the landscape genre. For centuries, artists and amateurs of varying skill and technique have attempted to chronicle the immensity, the subtleties, and the incomparable oddities that characterize our surroundings. Equipped with sketchbooks, portable easels, Pentel watercolor kits, or each generation’s growing lineage of photographic conveyances (Brownie, Kodachrome, Polaroid, iPhone), it is with great earnestness that we continue to combat the ephemeral nature of human memory, to stop time and express reverence for the sublime, or more recently, to simply showcase our whereabouts on Facebook.

There is an ease with which one can create a landscape image, at least in theory, and it’s possible we’ve all become landscape artists at one time or another. This is not to take away from serious practitioners, but as a genre, it’s likely to be the most pervasive, widely practiced form of creative expression. (If you haven’t tried your hand at it, maybe you’ve missed the signs along the highway—they sometimes offer gentle words of encouragement.) The popularity of the practice may be due in large part to the immediacy of the subject matter. Quite simply, the landscape is “there,” and its wonders can often be hidden close at hand. Furthermore, contrary to the images we so often encounter, the setting does not need to be extraordinary for it to be meaningful. In this sense, the landscape might be the earliest readymade art object, and it was for this very reason that landscape painting, as a practice, was greeted with skepticism from the Renaissance period up until the mid-19th Century. According to theorists of the time, there was little intellectual effort required to translate an existing scene to a canvas—it was just that, a literal manifestation, in comparison to the true artistry involved in reimagining allegorical, historical, or mythological narratives.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire – Savage State, 1834

Today, landscapes seem to be everywhere, whether in the form of screens, idealized photographs, commemorative calendars, motivational posters, or pinging Twitter and Instagram feeds. The default desktop wallpaper on nearly every operating system has become a landscape, as if to showcase the superiority of technology in its ability to faithfully render nature in millions of pixels per inch. Even the “selfie,” as a pop culture phenomenon, might at first masquerade as a form of portraiture, but it’s generally a glimpse of the surrounding space that provokes this practice. The much-maligned selfie stick, as a companion piece, is therefore an apparatus designed with the noble intent of somehow revealing more of a given landscape. I can’t deny that it is a good thing to see people out in the world creating these landscape images, but there seems to be a dilemma. I’ve seen dozens line up to get the same photo from the same spot, and I must confess that I’ve lined up right alongside them. This process seems more about checking off boxes, or a twisted version of Pokémon Go, than it is about experiencing the world around us.

Richard Misrach, “Stranded Rowboat,” Salton Sea, 1983

Despite the rise in snapshot based heroics, it’s safe to say there is more to landscape artistry than pointing, shooting, and capturing a likeness. Artists are often less concerned with pure documentation, and more interested in hinting at the ineffable nature of space itself. In the latter part of the 19th Century, the Impressionists were some of the first to break with the academy, harnessing the properties of oil paint to create a sense of atmosphere. They captured air that was thick and light that moved erratically, and there are still no Photoshop or Instagram filters that can replicate these effects. At its core, landscape is about space and a distinctive relationship with the viewer. This might sound overly general, but the genre seems to tap into something primal—space that must be traversed, experienced, and scaled in relation to our own bodies. The manipulation of this space often becomes the real subject of the work.

Consider how space can make something feel truly grand and awe-inspiring, it can make us feel small, as in the works of Thomas Cole or Ansel Adams. It can also suggest vacuousness and futility, as in the work of Richard Misrach. The symmetrical arrangement of space in a Sharon Ellis painting hints simultaneously at an otherworldly mysticism and the precision of biological structures. The medium of a landscape is unimportant, and though we typically think of photography and painting, artists like Michael Heizer and Nancy Holt have created uncharacteristic sculptural works that function within the landscape itself. A landscape’s conceptual underpinnings therefore have the potential to extend beyond realistic depictions of nature or the “land” in its myriad forms, they can be humorous, irreverent, subversive, and they can be transportative.

Nancy Holt "Sun Tunnels" (1973-1976) Location: Utah Desert. The artist installed 4 concrete pipes forming a cross.
Every Winter and Summer Solstice, the sun beam lights the interior of the pipes.

Landscape may be the perfect place to start for CMATO’s initial juried exhibition. As we’ve seen, it is a genre that is accessible and recognizable, but deceptive in its ability to convey potent themes. It might even sneak up on an audience. Furthermore, Southern California is a plein air paradise, and Ventura County, a destination for those seeking a diverse landscape. The mountains, creeks, and ocean offer iconic views, but the region is not without its barbs and its grit. Here, there is still an allegiance to the land, whether as a tourist destination or a f arming community. It’s a corridor between two more well known destinations, and a place with its share of refinements and refineries.

The Art Department Chairs have gathered from four local college campuses to select the work for this exhibition, and though each institution has its own approach to art education, we have sought a consistent level of technical innovation and a certain conceptual feistiness. In a time where open space and the well-being of the environment are under great pressure, the artists presented here challenge our expectations about the landscape genre, and are unafraid of exploring the sometimes cavernous space existing between humans and the natural world. Most importantly, they create insightful work that elicits deep attention, perhaps encouraging us to go out and experience our surroundings firsthand.

LUKE MATJAS is a Professor of Art and Chair of the Art Department at California State University Channel Islands.


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