Reimag­in­ing the land­scape

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - The Color of Light, is The Color of Light, Color of Light Au­gust Thun­der­heads Gal­is­teo Wash, Yel­low Thun­der

The dra­matic pas­tel works of Sally Hay­den von Conta ex­press an ex­u­ber­ant love of the out­doors in a one-of-a-kind style. Her works cap­ture the ever-chang­ing ter­rain of the South­west — its moun­tains, mesas, rivers, forests, streams, and val­leys — in a spec­trum of vi­brant col­ors and a sense of the land’s wild, un­tamed heart. A plein air painter, von Conta seeks to be at­tuned with nature, steep­ing her­self fully in the spirit of place. “At its best, you be­come so much a part of the land­scape that you dis­ap­pear,” she writes. Her work is on view through July 28 in the ex­hi­bi­tion The Color of Light at El Zaguán. On the cover is her plein air piece Septem­ber Sur­prise, 2016, pas­tel on pa­per.

There are few gen­res that re­flect the on­go­ing al­lure of the South­west more than land­scape paint­ing. While re­al­ist de­pic­tions might dom­i­nate the genre, New Mex­ico can boast its fair share of artists who ven­ture be­yond its con­ven­tions. Even artists ac­tive in the early and mid-20th cen­tury — James Sto­vall Mor­ris, E. Martin Hen­nings, and Gus­tave Bau­mann — took chances with color pal­ettes that dom­i­nated their styl­ized de­pic­tions of the ter­rain. But per­haps Bau­mann comes clos­est to the color sen­si­bil­ity at play in Sally Hay­den von Conta’s plein-air pas­tels. The works in her solo ex­hi­bi­tion hosted by the His­toric Santa Fe Foun­da­tion in the sala of El Zaguán, broach mag­i­cal re­al­ism. The com­po­si­tions are nat­u­ral­is­tic on one hand, but are also al­most hal­lu­ci­na­tory in the vi­brancy and heavy con­trasts of their tones. At times, the land, clouds, sky, and fo­liage seem to ex­plode into ab­strac­tion, but never to the point where th­ese el­e­ments cease to be representational and rec­og­niz­able.

Von Conta seems to look past form to fo­cus on the ar­ray she sees, let­ting color it­self de­fine the land­scapes — whether they be rolling hills, brush on a val­ley floor, a dry basin, or a dis­tant moun­tain. It’s use­less to ar­gue about whether the ac­tual vis­tas are quite as dra­matic as the vivid, glow­ing tones in which she ren­ders them. There’s no point work­ing en plein air if your in­ter­est is in imag­i­nary land­scapes. But there is some­thing imag­ined — per­haps “mag­ni­fied” is a better word — in the in­terim be­tween the mo­ment of per­cep­tion, when the world gets taken in, and the mo­ment of ex­e­cu­tion, when it gets trans­lated into an artis­tic ex­pres­sion.

The plain-seem­ing ti­tle, like some­thing a museum might call an ex­hi­bi­tion of works by the Im­pres­sion­ists, is rather apt when one con­sid­ers that color light. One thing an artist knows that the rest of us may not is that the green fo­liage of a tree at dawn isn’t the same at noon or at twi­light, or when viewed in bright sun­light as op­posed to un­der an over­cast sky. The color of the ex­ter­nal world is al­ways chang­ing. Von Conta seems to work from this aware­ness of the prop­er­ties of color and light. Though she makes some odd choices, like ren­der­ing the trunks of as­pens and gnarled cot­ton­woods in black, turquoise, peach, and ma­genta, they work in con­text.

There isn’t a lot of de­tail in her pas­tels, but they don’t read as re­duc­tive, ei­ther. In the ex­u­ber­antly named Oh My! The Río Grande!, in which the artist’s de­light ap­pears fo­cused on the river it­self and not the sur­round­ing land­scape, sim­ple black dots and lines scat­tered here and there are enough to in­di­cate scrub brush and tufts of grass. The com­po­si­tion is one of bold con­trasts. Muted greens and ochre form the ter­rain through which the river snakes, and dusky vi­o­let moun­tains sit in the back­ground. The river it­self, how­ever, is a rain­bow dis­play of bright color, as though filled with liq­uid opal.

Some works in have an in­ter­nal rhythm, a thrust of move­ment over the whole com­po­si­tion. — pre­sents lines of ero­sion in the earth that re­tain the im­pres­sion of me­an­der­ing wa­ters long gone. One can sense the di­rec­tion of the move­ment of the clouds, laden with shades of vi­o­let but hav­ing yet to burst forth with rain. The spindly branches of a dead tree reach sky­ward, their zigzag­ging lines sug­gest­ing light­ning. If that pro­posal seems a bit of a stretch, con­sider that von Conta makes sim­i­lar as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween the el­e­ments of earth and sky her­self in the ti­tle of at least one piece — — which de­picts a num­ber of ranch homes nes­tled in a val­ley of chamisa in daz­zling bloom. The moun­tains in the back­ground ap­pear to merge with the sky in one area of the com­po­si­tion, re­flect­ing the sky’s deep vi­o­let and turquoise blue.

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