Mary Vernon is not a “Landscape Painter.” Neither is she not a landscape painter. Her current show at Valley House Gallery in Dallas, simply titled Paintings, is mostly landscape based. But though her work often tries on, and mixes and matches traditional genres, it isn’t bound by any. And though rooted in descriptions of space and concrete objects, it revolves more around ideas and practices. This month there are two concurrent exhibitions of her work in Texas: at the Grace Museum in Abilene, and at Valley House Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Dallas, which has represented her for many years.
I’d just like to take a side-note to address landscape painting generally. As someone with a sweet tooth for it, I can also understand why it falls out of fashion in contemporary art discourse. It’s ripe for sentimentalizing, it’s often either propaganda or kitsch, and there’s way more bad landscape work out there than good. Plus, most of us don’t really go outside anymore — we raise our children and pets indoors, so the land doesn’t occupy our imaginations with the familiarity or immediacy it once did. But good Landscape is like a good tomato: You remember how real it can taste, and it’s worth all the blah you stomach the rest of the time.
Of Dallas’ longstanding and respected venues, Valley House may have the most landscape painters on its roster. There are some reasons for this, including the lore of the gallery’s grounds and its history, of being tied to place and a set of ideas about art. Another may just be the generational concerns of established regional artists the gallery represents, of which Vernon is an exemplar. Vernon has been teaching and painting in Dallas for decades. Over the years she’s sustained a practice of teaching and making in which the one activity necessitates the other, and both are extensions of a more general intellectual curiosity.
The bright paintings on view at Valley House continue a strategy Vernon has employed for years, of documenting space, color and experience. Hers is a relentless practice, like breathing, that constantly finds new ways of consuming her surroundings. The paintings open onto each other — not as closed statements, but sketches in motion. They accumulate and resolve, but are always trying something, risking something, asking something.
The reason I say Vernon’s not a “landscape painter” — besides the fact that she incorporates still-life, abstraction, objects and animals into her sometimes-fractured spaces — is that her landscapes are not pretty. They don’t primp and pose; they have their own work to do. But they can be beautiful, or raw, or haunted, as in her piece Fields at Mora, from 2016. She describes the landscape the way a poet or novelist does: emoting the arc of her own narrative, or journaling philosophical musings.
Through her career Vernon has maneuvered in and out of a few different mediums and substrates. The works in this show are mostly oil on Yupo, the personality of which she teases out and explores, taking liberties with the nature of the medium, and making little innovations here and there. In her vocabulary of marks there are brushy, drippy shapes, a scraping back into the paint to reveal layers underneath, and a slower, more illustrative line. These are layered in transparent and semi-opaque swaths that usually reveal the decision making and unexpected solutions found during the process of painting. She seems to bring together the way pigments and surfaces build an image, with how vision and color builds the world around us.
Vernon seems to find and then break formulas. Her iconography cycles through a number of categories: mountains, cliffs, forest groves and fog, snippets of foliage, patterns of leaves, flowers and fruit, furniture, fashion and sculpture, a stray horse or lion, and the simplified geometry of buildings. But like with her vocabulary of marks, the compositions are peopled in unpredictable ways.
Many of the works contain both close-up and faraway spaces, along with their respective mind frames. They overlap deep reflections with half-thoughts, dead-ends, and glances, and resolve them into smart, fresh paintings. This vein of painting works “real time” into its reception, in that viewers must stitch the marks and layers together in their eye to see it. Left slightly undone, a viewer steps into the gap and sparks the machine into motion. And the machine begins and ends with people.
Some people make art, some teach, and some sell shoes or bartend. Some artists go places, some sell a lot of work, and many eventually stop practicing. I think Vernon’s legacy is living a certain kind of humanist ideal that holds that the product of work is always a more enlightened humanity. Vernon’s oeuvre performs the tenet that our embodied minds are the correct locus of thinking, task mastering, vision, memory, and forging meaning. Her paintings are aides to this meaning-making, but not the end result. They are evidence of thought and play in which she synthesizes externally the work generated internally. There are inputs and outputs, but with the product of the machine being the growth and continual perfecting of the machine itself. And the machine is always people.
Through Oct. 28, 2017 at Valley House Gallery, Dallas