Alex Losett talks with Molly Ledbetter about her exhibition “Rethinking Landscape”
- I like how you question whether these “pristine” vistas can be taken at face value or not, considering the prevalent environmental and social concerns of the region. Were you conscious of this contradiction while painting these “deceptively idyllic” scenes ……
Very much so. “Pristine” is a romanticized definition; I would even call it immature. The idea of the "pristine landscape"--of nature as a wellspring of purity or innocence—is some two hundred years old. Yet this idea persists in popular culture and is ingrained in our very thought processes. Like most children of modern societies, I was raised with this concept.
From a human standpoint, there is nothing pristine about nature. It is full of microorganisms searching for warm hosts--such as us. I remember being warned against drinking water from crystalline looking streams on my first outing in the Canadian Rockies: the parasite girardia lives in those streams. I later learned that streams affected by acid rain look especially clear because they support little to no life.
Looks are deceptive. Nothing is really “pristine,” but there is no harm in entertaining the concept as long as we are conscious of its limitations.
……….and, if so, would you like the viewer to entertain that thought? (or) were you rather trying to encapsulate the inherent beauty of the region?
Just like nature, my landscape paintings do not reveal the contradiction. Only my artist statement does. As an artist, I make sure that my art conveys enough information that a viewer can connect with it simply by looking. If two people were to read the statement, one might entertain this contradiction while the other might forget about it. A third person might choose to ignore the statement altogether, fully embracing the aesthetic appeal of the work. These are all legitimate ways of interacting with the Landscapes. And there is no downside side to romantic innocence in art appreciation--after all, one can’t get infected from a painted stream.
- Follow up: did the environmental/social concerns inspire the creation of the series?
Yes, witnessing rapid environmental change pushed me to not merely contemplate painting landscapes but to actually do it. As a visual person, it pains me to see ugliness overtaking our common visual reality. Every time I drive from Philadelphia to the shore, I am disheartened to see commercial sprawl wiping out whole sections of the Pine Barrens, where fields and forests are giving way to parking lots and box stores. The eye and the mind do not rest when confronted by huge signs and utilitarian structures that are designed solely for the objective of maximizing cash flow and minimizing costs.
Creating urban and architectural beauty costs money. Ugliness, the unfortunate alternative, is a visual manifestation of many conjoined problems--flooding, traffic jams, pollution, etc.--that have been written about by people much more knowledgeable on the subjects than I.
But in this landscape series I am trying to raise awareness of the value of natural beauty--which, incidentally, also comes free. I am up against formidable odds: even in fine art the concept of beauty has become taboo. There is no vocabulary to talk about it without sounding desperately 19th century.
- Could you talk a little about your “decidedly and unapologetic feminist view” in accordance with this series?
I married at 20 – in retrospect, too early. I am still married and am now raising a son. For most of my life, I studied and worked mostly with men, and found it easy to get along; there is nothing personal in my restating of the fact that for a very long time our society has been run as a patriarchy and still has not fully overcome this.
On April 19, 2013 The Wall Street Journal observed in an article called “Women in the Verge” that most famous artists are still men (as, I might add, are most scientists, CEOs, etc.). I am not calling for statistical balance just for the sake of it, but I would like to attract attention to the fact that the society still considers subjects and positions interesting to men to be more intellectual. On the other hand, those that interest women are often considered “soft”. I think that this bias in initial judgment stands in the way of women developing their voices and articulating their views on the same rigorous terms as men have done over the centuries.
Some weeks ago, at the Panel Review of PAFA, a discussion of work by a woman artist invited the observation that perhaps the work was “romantic” and thus somehow pre-modern. In thinking about this, I realized that the work had struck me not as stylistically but as emotionally romantic. To me, a degree of emotionality is inherent in the current female perspective. I would like to assert that this is neither “soft” nor “lesser than”, but a valid and relevant way of relating to the world. It is this stand that I call “decidedly and unapologetically feminist.”
- How do you achieve such a proficient level of “sensory appeal” in these paintings? Obviously, the texture and lighting help a great deal to recreate this moment you experienced. Are there any other tools you use to help the viewer experience the moment for themselves?
The Repin Institute taught a la prima perceptual painting through countless hours painting models and working in the landscape. At the same time, students had free access to the collection of the Hermitage Museum, and I became enthralled by the idea of unlocking the "secrets” of earlier methods of painting. The masters’ works fascinated me because the techniques of their construction were not taught and seemed elusive.
In my freshman year, I often started my day in the Hermitage just as they opened the doors, and only then went to my painting class. Later, we spent an entire semester painting copies there; I did two copies of P.P. Rubens, trying to replicate his very deliberate and highly structured process of creating an oil painting.
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