Instead of imposing a narrative upon nature, Dawn Roe and Bruce Marsh let nature participate 

At the Art & History Museums in Maitland, some soul still shines while the rest of this suburban community lingers in a post-apocalyptic twilight of dead grocery stores, dilapidated Quonset huts masquerading as an urban nexus, and grotesque carbuncles of neo-traditional architecture. Inside the Research Studio (as the Maitland Art Center was originally christened) this fall, the gallery chronicles how we got to our current outlook on this world. Past, present and future points of view are presented in the trope of the landscape, a near-moribund art form valiantly resuscitated by artists Bruce Marsh and Dawn Roe.

Together with portraits and still lifes, landscapes were the mainstay of art school tradition. A certain perspective view – vanishing point off to one side, horizon line encircling the foreground like a protective arm – became no less ritualistic than a Japanese ink wash. By the postwar era, this art form was so embedded in our Western eyes that we continually repeated it to affirm our point of view about nature – and our place as conqueror above it.

Multiple examples from Rollins College's permanent collection reaffirm this formula; Daubigny's "River Landscape," from 1860, is typical. A river bends around trees, vanishing behind them. Sky reflects in the still water. Sun silhouettes the foregrounded trees. The viewer gazes upon nature fondly: everything in its place, beauty tamed by the discerning eye of man.

Marsh, who hails from rural Ruskin, Florida, continues this tradition, but with a modern twist. Florida's dramatic post-thunderstorm sky is reflected in the wet pavement of "Intersection With Clouds." Here, the monolith of pavement we have come to know and love is prettily rendered, its accoutrements of stoplights and gas stations no less well composed for their modernity. The conqueror's gaze lovingly envelops the scene, as in Marsh's other paintings.

In the last gallery, Roe shows us a different way of seeing. Recently, our relationship with nature has gone a little off-kilter, what with global climate change and Texas-sized Pacific trash patches. Roe went to Australia's abandoned gold mines to shoot, and pairs up photographs that just don't fit into the old ritual loveliness, instead breeding a dark, unsettling feeling of rupture and of nature as active participant, as an equal, to the artist.

click to enlarge "GOLD PAPER TREE" BY DAWN ROE
  • "Gold Paper Tree" by Dawn Roe

Wrapping tree trunks in gold fabric, Roe lampoons the once-greedy miners, but the glowering clouds don't relieve the scene with sunshine. Instead of framing a pretty set piece, Roe deliberately composes her images with menacing trees in the foreground, and sometimes she puts little gold effects here and there to taunt the viewer with something man-made.

As an environmental artist, Roe's point of view is uncertain, revealing a time-shift toward the future, when nature is no longer something tamed but something of its own, partially observed. Instead of imposing a narrative upon nature, Roe lets nature participate in the storyline.

Both Roe and Marsh work en plein air, outdoors with their subject matter. Marsh integrates man-made works of late – rusty pipes, airplane hangars – into the classical perspective, while Roe plays with time as the photographer documenting a scene. Both artists offer some badly needed perspective to construct a new point of view about our world.

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