Austere grandeur, stark elegance:
The Landscape Paintings of Celia Neubauer
By Donald Brackett
Art history doesn’t really repeat itself. It doesn’t have to. Talented artists are constantly adding to it anew, with ever fresh takes on ancient pictorial interests.
There might be thousands of subjects and motifs in the history of painting, however there are only four themes, with every single venture into a subject matter’s territory being recognizably within these four timeless overarching themes. Those persistent themes are: self, society, nature and spirituality, more or less in that order.
Landscape painting naturally enough falls into the third category, though at its best, this format can reveal an abundance about both the artist and the times in which they live. In the case of Neubauer, that time is the postmodern present, and her gifted painting practice reveals just how proficiently abstraction can merge with representation in a liberated and uniquely new visual language.
It is not only acceptable but essential, in order to fully appreciate their austere grandeur and stark elegance, to properly align her works within the mutual realm explored to great effect by both European and Oriental painters.
Perhaps because she took her advanced studies at the Slade School in England, she shares a remarkable affinity with great space-imaginers such as Constable and Turner, but even a deeper link to the early and radical experiments of the mysterious Alexander Cozens, active in Britain in the 1760’s.
Looking east, to witness a waterfall woodcut by the great Hokusai from circa 1820, or a hanging scroll by Wang Meng from circa 1320, is to almost emotionally inhale the sudden realization that all artists share a continual link that dramatically supersedes space and time. All greatly talented artists, that is.
Though the theme of nature has been explored through the language of landscape in both the classical eastern and western traditions for millennia, it is in a captivating image such as Neubauer’s “Tou 5” where they finally shake hands and agree to cooperate very creatively and extremely effectively. The word means “to go through” and indeed, the open space depicted with an apparently oriental flair is all about solitary passage, reflection, contemplation and a fertile intersection between the real and the abstract.
Several evocative building blocks begin to appear in the corners and edges of the canvas in a manner suggestive of the ongoing encroachment of humanity in its domination of nature, yet still the basic balance and transparent harmony of the scene is undeterred.
Two other ancient and revered Eastern notions about space depiction also help explain why and how we can travel across a terrain that actually isn’t there: that of “shou”, as in emerging from an unseen foundation, and “lou”, as in the quality of leaking or dripping.
In her landscape visions, Neubauer has achieved something far deeper than the mere imitation of nature, and has managed to reveal a tenuous and vulnerable series of meditations on mind and matter. Form and content are utterly resolved in these landscapes, as is the predominantly western notion of art as both image and idea. They are poised and perfect, but also restless and wild. “Into the Blue” and “Progress?” are excellent examples of this pictorial paradox. Their gentle push and pull brings us to a state of visual and mental tranquility, a harmony almost as rare in the west as it is common in the east.
An image such as “Bridge” for instance, offers us the most literal and compelling evidence for a merger between both the east/west and realism/abstraction trains of thought. The geometric blocks, which at first appeared as an invasion of untutored shapes, now reveal themselves to be a positive, constructive and harmonizing element which resolves the space.
This painting, from the aptly named Fusion series, thus contains both a literal bridge between two mountain ranges, and a metaphorical bridge between two distinct cultures and two different ways of seeing reality. It’s all relative.
A painting such as “Interior”, also from the Fusion series, is a good indication of how difficult this task is, yet also how rewarding when handled so skillfully. These recent and current works, so refreshingly retinal and tactile in our overwhelmingly electronic world, are powerful physical dialogues between diverse styles and sensibilities: they each converse with the long history of painting itself, as well as with each other, in a quiet yet self-assured voice.
Throughout her consistently evolving career, she has learned to both listen to and to speak what Vincent Van Gogh so astutely called the language of nature. Listen to her graceful translations of that language with your heart, while absorbing it through your eyes.