Upon entering the exhibition “En Plein Air,” visitors are greeted with a frontis displaying a poem by William Wordsworth. Sentimental and romantic, it describes the memory of a landscape as “sensations sweet.” A few steps further, fifty 8 x 10 inch traditional landscape paintings hang along the walls in historically specific frames. But for a few gems, where a hot pink ground breaks through into bursts of sunlight, the works are universally unremarkable. The artists do not advance a particular aesthetic or sensibility. They pay scant attention to detail or technique, and display no particular mastery of color or illusion. Quality aside, other elements in the show suggest that the artists are doing something much more interesting.
In a photocopied handout, visitors are informed that “Adam Bateman and Levi Jackson have made 50 paintings en plein air as a performative act.” This statement situates the work in a conceptual framework and connects it with the ideas of Don Judd, who famously said “If someone says it’s Art, it’s Art.” Bateman and Jackson have been similarly declarative. As such, the works are redefined as byproducts of a performance rather than finished pieces. Above all, our curiosity is piqued about the performance that created them.
More information can be found in a photograph located on the handout. This shows the artists outside, standing beside their easels in a Utah landscape. While we’d like to imagine the two men casually mixing paints and dabbing their boards, the real performance consists in re-staging an act undertaken frequently by historical painters from the 1800s. Unlike plein air painters from other parts of the country whose works entered a more conventional system of consumption, Western landscape painters accompanied teams of explorers and settlers who forged Westward Expansion. The artists explain how the resulting paintings were “used as propaganda by large corporations and the federal government to sell people on the West—the designation of national parks, the possibilities of resources and land, the building of telegraphs and railroads.” This information revises our current view of landscape painting, as a quasi-leisure activity that feeds into the commercial gallery system, into a highly charged and politicized act complicit with the West itself. The information also elevates the significance of placing the show at the Rio Gallery, a former train station for the Rio Grande railway and another instrument of westward expansion.
As Bateman and Jackson re-stage this action, they partake in an “act of claiming.” Broadly speaking, this could involve the “claiming” of a view, a perspective or a sunset. More specifically, “reclaiming” continues the Western tradition of staking a claim and asserting ‘This is mine. This is my Land.’ This gesture is hardly without implication given the highly charged climate of land rights in Utah, the contested role of the public lands among non-urban Utahns, to say nothing of the artists’ Mormon heritage. But repossession, it should be noted, is something already in Bateman’s blood. In 2015 he spent over three months repossessing the entire Mormon Trail during his 74-day “Walking the Mormon Trail” performance in 2015. Here, he and Jackson do something similar: they reclaim the mighty trope of Landscape Painting back for themselves.
Coming full circle, visitors to “En Plein Air” are left with the paintings themselves. Here, issues of quality are mediated by the unavoidable fact that Utah does harbor serious, formidable painters (not artists) who have their own painterly language and even today, advance the trope of landscape painting. The paintings in En Plein Air do not compare with those works. Bateman and Jackson’s performance however acknowledges the complexity of this predicament along with the weight of history. In so doing, they excel at finding an authentic language that asserts a Western identity as Western artists, in a way that far surpasses the trope of landscape painting.
“En Plein Air,” recent paintings by Levi Jackson & Adam Bateman, continues through March 10 at the Rio Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT.