Joseph Bravo | November 25, 2021
The Context of the Landscape
In the contemporary era, one in which digital communities are emerging that seem to transcend our sense of place and where identities are formed in geo-ambiguous cyberspace, the landscape itself, let alone its representation in art, may appear anachronistic; a nostalgic endeavor which seems out of place as well as time. As people increasingly start to define their identities in terms of online affinity groups, it may seem that geography is increasingly less pertinent to our sense of social, let alone personal, identity. One might even ask if landscape painting is any longer a relevant artistic practice at all?
The notion of landscape painting generally conjures up laconic pastoral imagery, a sublime grandeur, or a sense of romantic allure; at least such has been its presentation throughout much of Western European and American art history.
In American art history, in particular, landscape painting is somewhat unavoidably contextualized by idealized historical notions of westward expansion, of vast wildernesses both inviting and intimidating, presenting opportunity on the one hand and unforeseen hazard on the other. Those landscapes ostensibly represented freedom for some, necessarily resourceful self-reliance, and courage to enter a wilderness in which the only law enforced was Darwin’s. Indeed, its penetration was ostensibly proposed to imply a humanizing civilization that must be imposed on an awe-inspiring but hostile environment; or at least, so it was imagined in the Protestant Anglocentric context of a less than self-evident Manifest Destiny.
South of the River, there was likewise a colonial Eurocentric Baroque optic on the landscape but one which was Hispanic and Roman Catholic. It, too, viewed the wilderness as awesomely hostile and appropriated a Divine Aegis, a Papal dispensation to colonize and ostensibly Christianize the Indigenous people, albeit allegedly for their benefit. It contended for supremacy over conquered territories in competition with its Anglocentric counterpart. That contention extended to which River was to be the demarcation of emerging empires, the Red River, the Sabine, the Nueces, or the Rio Grande.
Of course, in reality, that land (north and south of all the rivers) was already inhabited, and that so-called “destiny” was mercilessly imposed on its Indigenous occupants in anything but a humanitarian manner. The native view of the landscape was quite different, and their connection to it was likewise posed in metaphysical terms, albeit terms very different from those of the new colonizers. They, too, felt entitled to continue to freely inhabit that place on their terms as they had for millennia. Tragically, caught between competing empires and competing Christian sectarianisms, their cultural, political, and religious supremacy would not withstand the simultaneous onslaught of both European disease and genocidal conquest. That Indigenous world would be forever changed by the events which were to unfold in the context of the dynamics of raw power.
South of the rivers would emerge a Mestizaje culture and ethnicity, one of mixed Hispanic and Indigenous roots. This hybrid identity would for several centuries be the de facto culturally dominant society in the region. However, historical competition and its imperialist contests would continue until the late 19th Century, when the political outcome would ultimately be settled through force of arms. Anglocentric American political hegemony would be established north of the Rio Grande River, regardless of what historical treaties might have specified. A political border would be established at that River regardless of what the regional inhabitants might have wished. Though that border was unnatural, even the natural fauna would ultimately become severely impacted by the political consequences of establishing a physical boundary.
But the underlying cultural and ethnic context would not change overnight simply by sovereign decree. While Anglos would increasingly immigrate into the Rio Grande Valley and become part of the sociopolitical and economic dynamics of the region, they would never represent a majority of the population, despite possessing disproportionate socio-economic and political power. Between the Nueces and the Rio Grande rivers would emerge an ambiguous Tejano zone, technically within the political sovereignty of the United States of America but culturally more Mestizaje and, to Anglos from outside the region, virtually indistinguishable from Mexico. However, that distinction would be considerably more pronounced for those who dwell south of that same River yet still within the greater cultural and natural region.
For those Mestizo populations south of the River, that transitional zone would come to represent something potentially enticing, no matter how hostile the inhospitable landscape might appear. It would symbolize ostensible economic opportunity, relative security from oppressive political dysfunction, and reconnection with family and community ties north of the River. It would theoretically represent a land of potential promise for themselves and their children. The reality would, of course, be far more complex and a good deal less Utopian. Sentiments could be mixed as the same zone immediately north of the River could simultaneously be viewed with ambivalence, historical resentment, and suspicion, yet still perceived as a preferable option despite its challenges and problematic connotations.
the landscape is loaded with natural, political, and personal peril. But one in which it is also loaded with natural beauty, potential opportunity, and the promise of relative prosperity. Yet this particular landscape remains a place of political contest, of negotiation of both identity and power, a place whose promise can be denied to those with prohibited national identity.
This is the context in which contemporary landscape painting in the Rio Grande Valley region continues to emerge; the landscape is loaded with natural, political, and personal peril; but one in which it is also loaded with natural beauty, potential opportunity, and the promise of relative prosperity. Yet this particular landscape remains a place of political contest, of negotiation of both identity and power, a place whose promise can be denied to those with prohibited national identity. La Frontera is still a place of imperial demarcation with all the concomitant ethical and political complications inherent in any delineation of national sovereignty.
The Artists and Their Artworks
It stands to reason that how an artist views this particular landscape and their artistic priorities in relation to it might be informed from their own cultural perspective and that this may, in turn, be impacted by their ethnicity, their primary language, their gender, and at least their initial national identity. This exhibit entitled South of the Checkpoint / North of the River affords viewers a relatively unique opportunity to consider the painted landscape along with the Rio Grande Valley from three distinct perspectives: that of an Anglo-American male, that of a Tejana, and that of a Mexicano, all of whom are cultural initiates of this unique region.
This exhibit entitled South of the Checkpoint / North of the River affords viewers a relatively unique opportunity to consider the painted landscape along with the Rio Grande Valley from three distinct perspectives: that of an Anglo-American male, that of a Tejana, and that of a Mexicano, all of whom are cultural initiates of this unique region.
Despite being residents of the Rio Grande Valley and being fine art instructors at UTRGV, all three artists received their technical training in fine art from preeminent institutions located a good deal northeast of the Red River. Jerry Lyles received his MFA from the American University in Washington, DC., Gina Gwen Palacios earned her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Rigoberto Alonso Gonzalez would complete his MFA at the New York Academy of Art. All headed north to refine their craft but, importantly, all returned to the La Frontera region to practice it and find artistic inspiration in the local landscape.
In the paintings by Jerry Lyles, the artist directs his gaze to a suburban landscape, one in which nature is still present but in which the built environment nominally intrudes. While the botanical environment tends to be the focus of his attention, roads and architecture also appear. His approach is very painterly, with broad brushstrokes and exuberantly applied colors. The artist’s palette is rich in earth tones with prominently bright oranges, dark browns, and acrid greens. But also prominent are vivid blues and bright whites used to depict light. Indeed, light is a key subject of his narrative and also, for this artist, a distinct indicator of place. The Rio Grande Valley’s light is unique, and Lyles keenly observes its peculiar properties.
His style is informed by European Plein Air landscape painting history, particularly from precedents arising from the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. Yet that style is not simply a reiteration of late 19th century developments but is informed by 20th-century Postwar optics. His gestures are highly expressionistic, and his pictorial priorities are undeniably Postmodern. He uses the chaotic organics of tree branches to delineate complex compositions and to cast shadows that define space. These compositions reflect an awareness of Asian pictorial traditions as well as European precedents. There is an astute combination of realism and abstraction and color deployed for expressionistic and representational reasons. These are artworks that are as much about the application of paint as they are about the literal narrative of the landscape. To some extent, they are paintings about the practice of painting and the concomitant process of phenomenological observation.
Noteworthy, however, is the fact that Lyles’ paintings are devoid of human beings. The presence of architecture implies their existence, yet nobody emerges from the buildings. Parking lots are curiously devoid of automobiles, and people are ostentatiously missing even in places where they might be expected to be ubiquitous. They are indeed conspicuous by their absence, as if their presence would constitute an intrusion on the pristine nature of the landscape depicted. Some of this may be due to the nature of the Plein Air process in which static imagery tends to dominate as the artist is chasing the ever-changing light. The process is by nature quick and immediate and is, to some extent, a reportage of physical phenomena which would be unnecessarily complicated by the presence of people. Their appearance might be awkwardly contrived if static and illegible if caught in motion. Consequently, for the purposes of his expressively observational Plein Air style of painting, the inclusion of figures might represent an undue distraction. Nonetheless, this leaves the viewer with a sometimes disturbing sense of isolation as the paintings can convey a melancholy quality, despite their exuberant celebration of color and light.
The paintings of Gina Gwen Palacios likewise convey a melancholy sensibility but one born from a very different connection to the land. Rather than suburban settings, the artist’s focus is from a more agrarian perspective as the landscape and its fauna take on a symbolic connotation, one of struggle to endure and in which the history of a place and its people are present.
Though created from photographic sources, Palacios’ images are rendered with disciplined draftsmanship but a looser painting technique that expresses the feeling of a place. Color is used expressionistically to convey mood but also to capture the evening light. In the painting Resaca, a whitetail deer freezes in reaction to the observer in an environment that is painted in a mannered style reminiscent of El Greco. In other works by the artist, depictions of nopales and blue agave recall the artworks of traditional 19th and early 20th-century Mexican painters of the Altiplano while also indicating the prickly gestalt of a region in which even the natural fauna can be simultaneously beautiful and hazardous.
In the work of Palacios, a pair of cotton bowls at sunrise convey a deeper narrative. The expressively gesticulated rendering reveals the beauty and the menace of the outer shell, which reluctantly releases its fibrous treasure. Along the Gulf Coast, cotton is an inherently loaded image. Cotton would bring prosperity to some but at a horrific price in terms of human suffering to others. Palacios recalls stories of her family toiling in those fields; people whose hands were torn and scarred from picking the desirable fluff from its maliciously pointed containers that took their toll in pain and blood from those condemned to work these unforgiving rows. Cotton inherently carries the narrative of exploitation and the distinction between ownership of the land and the dispossessed labor required to make that ownership profitable.
Indeed, dispossession is a running theme in Palacios’ work and one born of the Tejano experience, an experience in which those who have inhabited the region for centuries have commonly and cruelly been treated as unwelcome aliens in their land. Part of reclaiming possession is to indicate the enduring presence of the Tejano people. In her work entitled San Benito, the artist depicts a folk mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on a fence overlooking a road. That road is painted in blue to indicate cast shadows, but the azure color also allows for its imaginative conflation with the ubiquitous canals that irrigate the region. The sanctifying image of the Virgin reiterates the presence of the gente who, like the centrally placed tree, have deep roots in the soil and draw their spiritual sustenance from their connection to it. Likewise, in other paintings, funerary crosses indicate the high price paid by countless souls who are consumed by the landscape and its context.
In some of the paintings, people are more literally present, as in her work entitled American Primitive, where a sympathetic mother and child confront the viewer. The title invokes the iconic Grant Wood painting American Gothic but carries a critique of the Whiteness of such traditional American agrarian imagery in which the Anglo farmer is typically portrayed as stoically ennobled, but the Mestizo laborer is noticeably absent. The maternal figure’s fecundity and tenderness are contrasted to the harsh barrenness of the field. Such an image begs the question of the connotation of the word “primitive” as a pejorative and imbues it with a notion of what is primary. The implication of who came first to this land and is primarily connected to it through indigeny and toil is put front and center in such a moving painting.
There is also an environmentalist subtext in several of Palacios’ paintings. Beyond agriculture and its problematic socio-economic context in the region, there are other land use issues, particularly those related to the energy industry. Some of her paintings feature discarded oil barrels, a road flooded by toxic fracking waste, or giant wind turbines intruding incongruously on the landscape. These are contrasted to more pristine depictions of the natural environment with titles like Worship. It is not only the people who are exploited, but the landscape itself, and such paintings call into question humanity’s relationship to the land and each other.
In her painting entitled “Border,” Palacios takes a more cleverly conceptual approach by depicting a night scene of the Wall. Frontally, this image reads as both narrative and abstract, with its monochromatic rectilinear architectonics recalling the nonobjective paintings of the midcentury while simultaneously conveying the literal image of a fence. The menacing image of an unnaturally intrusive barrier is contrasted to the more traditional natural landscape discretely illustrated along the lateral edges of the canvas. The painting is an obvious indictment of the Border Wall and the nationalist ideology along with the racist implication that is its context. But it also reflects a triumph of both nature and a people who tenaciously circumvent such obstacles.
Rigoberto Alonso Gonzalez brings a specifically Mexican optic to bear in his beautifully rendered images of the landscape. Informed by the illustrious tradition of Spanish Viceregal painting, Gonzalez reinvents the European Baroque style for a contemporary era and a distinctly non-European landscape. Lusciously rendered with rich color and masterful technique, Gonzalez’s artworks feature emotionally evocative drama.
In his painting entitled Mariposas en el Muro, the artist tackles the landscape from the perspective of the migrant by depicting the semipermeable nature of the Border Wall. In the foreground stands a pensive young woman who is waiting. Her gaze is diverted to a place outside of the frame but still on her side of the Wall as she anticipates the arrival of someone else. She clutches her left arm as if trying to keep warm or at least feel more secure. On the other side of the barrier are deep blue skies with warm oranges indicating a sun hanging low on the horizon, but there is no depiction of the land itself. What lays beyond is vague and unknown. Indeed, the only physical landscape indicators are the ugly metal bars that imply confinement. The comparison between the figure and the butterflies is unavoidable as both are migrants. But unlike the vulnerable woman trapped in the foreground, the butterflies effortlessly pass through the fence unobstructed.
The landscape need not involve grand vistas in order to be palpably present. It can be invoked by portraiture of wildlife as in Gonzalez’s Coyote drawing from his Creatures of Prometheus series. The coyote is a feral scavenger that must traverse vast territories to survive. In Indigenous mythology, it is associated with the trickster for its cunning opportunism. The coyote knows all the arroyos and canyons of the desert and how to conceal itself while discretely traveling at dusk. Hence, the human traffickers who offer to guide migrants across this same desert are called “coyotes,” but, like their canine counterparts, they can opportunistically prey upon their human contraband.
In his drawing entitled Hawk, from the same series, Gonzalez depicts a raptor. This creature, too, is wide-ranging but, instead of hiding in the shadows, it lurks above the desert with a bird’s eye view. The artist shows the predator peering down from its lofty perch ominously regarding the prey below. Its formidable musculature and talons are revealed beneath its immaculately rendered feathers. As if to enhance the sense of menace, foreboding storm clouds loom in the distance. Gonzalez’s desert inhabitants are not so much evil as indifferent, following their incentives to survive in a land where that presents fiercely existential challenges as well as moral hazard.
The tradition of landscape painting is alive and well in the Rio Grande River Valley, and it is as aesthetically pertinent and culturally resonant as ever. It also comes in styles and optics as diverse as the people of the region. For these artists, at least, where one lives still matters a great deal and is more determinative of one’s sense of identity than anything that transpires in cyberspace. The geographic place still dictates their sense of history, their sense of justice, and their perception of environmental and social hazards.
While that River brings life to an otherwise inhospitable land, life along it has involved arduous struggle and danger from time immemorial. It has been a place of the conflation of ecosystems and cultures, a place of conflict and strife, a place with a promise of prosperity and peril … a place of boundaries and their crossings.
These depictions of the landscape along La Frontera convey this sense of dualism, and, like the artists who create them, they spring from the soil with some ambivalence about their sense of place. In these paintings, the artists convey their profound connection to their specific environment; but there is also a pervasive triste, an abiding sadness in their artworks. With that unrelenting struggle comes a fatigue and disappointment at its unfulfilled promise. But nonetheless, like the people on both sides of that River, landscape painting tenaciously endures.
Joseph Bravo is a San Antonio-based art historian, curator, and writer. He has devoted his life and career to education and the interdisciplinary study of art and curation.
South of the Checkpoint / North of the River is on view by appointment at Presa House Gallery December 4, 2021 – December 25, 2021