In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis’s third Chronicle of Narnia, the characters step out of dull reality and enter a fantasy world through a portrait on the wall. The seascape acts as a conduit between dimensions and a spur for adventure: It grows larger and larger until the characters fall through the frame and plunge into the water. Dawn Treader is a story for kids, but the magic that Lewis describes isn’t entirely imaginary. It’s a fair, albeit poetic, description of the transporting power of landscape painting. Paintings by a skilled landscape artist really do feel like portals into another time and place. A true master of the style—Hasegawa Tōhaku, say, or Breughel the Elder, or Jersey’s own George Inness—can pull the viewer into a parallel universe.
Hudson County is a place defined by spectacular views. Nothing impedes our apprehension of Midtown Manhattan—there it is, right across the river, monumental and breathtaking. Seen from the top of the Palisade, our own tall buildings and tidy downtown neighborhoods are pretty impressive, too. The broad carpet of the Meadowlands, the weird, crumbling post-industrial zones on the fringes of the city, the great iron bridges that arch over the Hackensack: These are all eyefuls. Because our scenery is so gorgeous, we’re inclined to appreciate vistas. The most engrossing art exhibitions mounted in Jersey City over the past few months have taken advantage of this taste. Candy LeSeuer’s seaside daydreams and Ricardo Roig’s urbane, detailed prints of Hudson County landmarks open windows in otherwise blank walls. The three artists who contributed to the latest show at Novado Gallery (110 Morgan St.) are up to something similar. You’d never mistake a painting by Diana Godfrey for one by Nathan Sullivan or Robert Glisson: Their moods, techniques, and approaches are distinctly different. Yet they’ve all got that knack for pulling you in to the picture.
Glisson’s work offers the most conventional ride. His country landscapes are blurred, bucolic, rich with representations of abundant daylight, and perhaps a bit too reminiscent of Edgar Degas. The strokes of oil paint on his canvases are so gooey-thick and hypnotic that it might take a second or two to catch precisely what he’s representing. Nevertheless, the heat comes off these pictures immediately. It’s summer in Glisson’s world, trees are overburdened with foliage, and the cows take refuge from the sun under the canopy of leaves. Summertime means life, life has weight and mass, and Glisson’s canvases convey that pleasant, comforting heaviness. The bodies of beachgoers in “Provincetown in June” bend with the day like the sail of the boat in the distance. They move with the elements—the wind, the sunshine, and the placid sea. There is no sense of menace. Everything is in its proper place.
Nathan Sullivan paints plant life, too, and he also uses oils to create his immersive landscapes. Similarities to Robert Glisson end there. Glisson’s paint is thick, swirled, rich as the icing atop a cookie; Sullivan’s oils approach the flatness of a photograph. The Novado Gallery presents five large panel paintings in his “Space Series,” each of which imagines an otherworldly scene in which the proportions of organic materials are altered. Fronds sprout to the size of trees, seed pods tower like monuments over a glassy marsh, pine-cone-like structures are tucked beneath a massive spray of grass under a yolk-yellow sky. All of these hallucinations are rendered with sci-fi precision. Lines are sharp, color contrast is striking, and the shadows correspond to the position of a strange and distant sun. These may indeed be vistas on planets where the flora, with no small amount of aggressiveness, has claimed control of the biosphere. But Sullivan is also playing with the notion of “space” itself: our collective understanding of the territories that familiar terrestrial objects like plants and leaves are meant to occupy. By changing the dimensions, he’s upended our expectations, and created provocative landscapes that work like dislocations.
For sheer transportive power, Sullivan and Glisson are outdone by Diana Godfrey, who contributes a pair of “Water’s Edge” panels to the show. These are the two simplest pieces in the gallery; they’re also the smallest. The “Water’s Edge” paintings, which were created with a combination of acrylics and oils, are pure landscapes: horizontal fields of color denoting grass, sky, and water. There isn’t much detail, there’s not much sign of activity, and there are no people present to trouble or complicate the view. Yet the texture of Godfrey’s paints is as soft as upturned earth, and her colors are deep and mysterious as those of a spring night. These small squares speak eloquently, and maybe even conspiratorially, but they don’t give away their secrets; instead, they beckon you close and solicit an immediate emotional response. Notably, Godfrey’s other pieces in the show aren’t landscapes: They’re a play of overlapping rectangles in near-pastel colors, some roughly striped, some distressed, some scribbled over, all fading a little. Their proximity to the “Water’s Edge” paintings bestows a sense of place on them. They’re redolent of country houses, old wallpaper, farmed fields from a crow’s perspective. Empty horizons always connote longing. Coupled with the rustic feel of the other pieces, Godfrey’s works in this exhibition suggest the deep country, land passed by and largely forgotten, but still possessing quiet dignity, still waiting to be appreciated.
Godfrey frames her work in rough wooden boxes, which gives them the feel of heirlooms tucked under a bed or locked in an attic. Glisson’s oil paintings radiate their heat from within classic gold frames (many of Degas’s also did), which reinforces their hot-weather quality, and their museum-ish conservatism, too. Sullivan doesn’t bother with borders at all. Instead, his panels are slices in space, images viewed through the flat windows of the arriving lander of a starship. But the will to lead the viewer into a netherworld of the artist’s creation is the same, regardless of the technique. The joint show, which opened on January 2 and closes February 8, offers seventeen fleeting trips into the yonder, some of which might even have an ameliorating effect on the harshness of the season. The Novado Gallery remains one of the most generous art spaces in town: It’s open five days a week, and it’s very pretty inside.
Header: “Space Series #12” by Nathan Sullivan