Reimagining the landscape
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.