Liza Phillips Wet Land at Joyce Goldstein Gallery
Painting an Unnatural Nature
Liza Phillips’s landscape paintings of lakes, forests and swamps are strange in a way that isn’t immediately apparent. Rendered with the familiar conventions of plein air painting, like shorelines shrouded by thickets of trees, they assert a moody animation that bubbles up from just beneath the surface.
The exhibition, Wet Land, features recent paintings that depict terrain not far from Phillips’s home in Narrowsburg, NY. Pictures in the show have titles like Masthope Rapid, Mahl’s Pond and Ten Mile Brook, places she has visited and knows well. During the Covid pandemic, many of us sought refuge in long walks outdoors, away from people and crowds, and Phillips has mentioned, how during lockdown she decided to paint just woods and water. A period of newfound concentration working from direct observation in nature. Sketching and photographing on site, she would develop these preliminary studies in the studio, augmenting observation with imagination and memory. A viewer to Wet Land can live vicariously through her treks in the forest. Phillips’s point of view has us winding along trailways very close to small bodies of water, seemingly standing in a swamp or creek, maybe balanced on a rock, looking through a clearing, or hovering directly over stagnant or rippling water.
Looking through Phillips’s body of work from 2021 to the present time, the paintings serve as a guide to the tributaries, forks, rapids, bogs and moors of Sullivan County, not far from the Delaware River that divides New York and Pennsylvania. Some works, with titles like February Lake, Rock Lake, March Hummock and Masthope Glow are evocative of the time of year, or simply describe a place observed during a private moment in time. The paintings in acrylic on canvas, panel or yupo have a minimal, lyrical beauty and posses the local color and palette of a given setting. In some cases, the viridian and mint greens of mosses and pines are accented with yellow streaming sunlight, or the madders and umbers of blanketed decay are offset with the black silhouettes of hulking tree trunks. The oranges and rusts that define hummocks and landbanks are complemented by cerulean water and sky. Elsewhere, one enjoys subdued, beige dunes and grey rocks among pale, splintered twigs. The orchestration of the color is matched by patches of lively brushwork. Phillips’s compositions are focused and reined in, the gestalt of each picture carefully compartmentalized with gestural, almost abstract brushwork.
The many landscapes in Wet Land are poignant in their details and the climates and habitats they evoke. But the paintings are equally intriguing for their departures from realism and the uneasy psychological reveries they impart. By often emphasizing foreground activity, as her view pans out to reveal the distance, we seem to be sharing in Phillips’s act of quizzically creeping up on a subject to make sense of it. The landscapes are less romantic or idyllic than sober and open-ended. Paintings like Swamp Island, Rootball at the Fork, and Mastodon Swamp exaggerate and riff on some of the main wetland features they depict. In their misshapen and darkened ambiguity, fallen trees and blasted stumps appear animal-like, emerging from the murk. There are indeterminate minglings of land with water, and reflection with solid ground, that sometimes read like alien solarscapes. These figural aspects of Phillips’s landscapes shouldn’t come as a total surprise. In her earlier work she combined odd juxtapositions of people, places and things in surreal narrative scenes that unfold like rebus puzzles. Although, more subtle in their strange animations, Phillips’s recent landscapes exert a tension around what is familiar and stable. Comfort in primordial nature appears to bump up against weird science as it manifests through the lens of man-made climate change. Throughout much of Phillips’s work, water has been a recurrent theme. Her narrative pieces have often focused on commerce taking place on the open seas, with pictures that featured dockyards, coves, cargo ships, intermodal containers, barges and vessels. Her focus on water has changed over time, moving from industrial urban settings bordering oceans, to recent bucolic forests that harbor wetlands. The knots, ropes and cords associated with seafaring have transmogrified into gnarly vines and root balls in her sequestered woodlands. In all of these works, shifts in scale and depth of field are pivotal in suggesting point of view, bringing to life an interior state of mind where one is as easily lost in the wilderness as in one’s own thoughts.
The motifs that comprise Phillips’s naturalistic settings are fairly straightforward, and the intimate settings offer a plenitude of sensual phenomena. One can sense the inspiration of her surroundings when Phillips’ wields brush to canvases, and her enjoyment in the beauty of the wetlands, even with the lowgrade buzz of existential anxiety. She exposes the glistening and faceted planes of reflecting pools, tufted hummocks and grasses, the dramatic angles of fallen trees, and brooding foregrounds that reveal mossy logs and nettled forest floors. The medium of paint on canvas has its advantages in bringing her more surreal imaginings to life. The static, window-like picture plane allows the artist to capture the borders of a particular scene and location, even as the compositions assert a loose gestural abstraction that deviates from any slavish depiction of reality. Phillips’s surfaces have slippery contours and thinned transparent overlays that lay bare the work in the act of completion, reminiscent of artist Heidi Hahn’s compositions. As well as the sturdy structures and economy of means that can also be found in works by painter Noa Charuvi. Through their open-endedness and layerings of colored washes, Phillip’s paintings feel compounded with decisions ever evolving. The viscous, liquid medium allows for a shape shifting that doesn’t settle on a fixed reading of a known place. A perfect complement to an artist who is questioning, searching, and evolving, as she follows the trail less traveled.