I look at the paintings of the Fox River that I have made and I ask myself, “What do I want? What do I want from these paintings?” As I reflect on this question it is the word want that begins to give me a sense of direction. I think we go to the landscape out of a sense of want. We go with hope and expectation that some inner need and longing will somehow find fulfillment in the landscape. I carry this aching want to the landscape, but as I sit in contemplation of the scene before me the want seems only to grow inside. Like thirst, that initially vague sensation that only escalates, the want will not go away.
I vividly remember feeling this want as a young boy hiking in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. The untrammeled vistas I saw from the tops of the mountains were breathtakingly beautiful but I distinctly remember that they also inspired a great sense of longing within me. I was enthralled and mystified by this sense of longing. I did not know where that longing was leading.
Landscapes do not fulfill our expectations, they lead us instead to long for something beyond expectations, an awareness of an ever larger world, something more and other, just out of sight. As in homesickness we conjure a sense that our belonging lies elsewhere – we become lost in a palpable absence. If an artist sets out to define, clarify, or fulfill that absence, if she aims to show us what we were looking for, she turns the landscape into a melodrama.
The more serious artistic quest is to devise a painting that like the land itself leaves the subject in disguise, in a camouflage that makes presence and absence hinge on one another. Beauty, said the 19th C American landscape artist George Inness, “depends upon the unseen.” Just so, the subject of every metaphor is “unseen,” disguised within another form so we might know it more fully than we would had it been given to us literally. “The intellect desires to define everything,” wrote George Innes, “…But God is always hidden and beauty depends on the unseen, the visible upon the invisible.”
Written by Joel Sheesley,
Artist-In-Residence for the Fox River Initiative's Art of the Fox Program