Kathryn Altus at Lisa Harris Gallery (Seattle)
by Matthew Kangas
Art Ltd. West Coast Art and Design, January 2008, page 28
Kathryn Altus at Lisa Harris Gallery
With the postmodern pressure for painting to justify itself conceptually, Seattle painter Kathryn Altus juxtaposed landscape paintings of the Pacific Northwest with scenes of Israel. Hung in pairs, the oils provided instructive comparisons of differing climates, geography and topography; however, the work fails to make further points about "wars in the Middle East," perhaps reinforcing the artist's claim that, in the words from her statement, "land, the ground upon which all people stand, prove[s] transcendent in the context of the painted landscape."
Eschewing claims of "religious fervor or political ideology," Altus nonetheless strains to "express the hope of mutual understanding." Her heart is in the right place; however, her strategies conceal what a masterful landscape painter she has become since her first solo show at the Northwest Center for Jewish Arts in Seattle in 1990. In between, Altus flirted with abstraction in a Rothko-like series of sky-water-and-land vertical canvases in 2002. Those paintings had colored bands on either top and bottom edges or their left and right sides, had a glowing quality that downplayed recognizable locale, and attained a simultaneity of identifiable site and manipulated color, shape and form.
With the earnestness of the Washington State/Israel dyad, Altus may be asking too much of her magically silent, often shadowy, settings. Using explicit titles such as the pairing Elevation: 14, 410 Feet (Mt. Rainier) and Elevation: 14, 410 Feet (Mt. Rainier), the artist is now pushing away from the nascent abstraction of her 2002 and 2005 exhibitions.
Scenes of verdant mountainous areas in western Washington State accompany views of the more arid, eastern half of the state. In Chelan/Golan Merge, the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains blends with a stormy vista of the Golan Heights in Israel. Blurred together in one painting rather than awkwardly separate (like Israel and Palestine), Altus successfully creates the "transcendent" image she seeks elsewhere through division.
Two 30" high paintings recall her previous, vertical format. 15:00 Greenwich Mean Time (5:00PM Jerusalem) and 15:00 Greenwich Mean Time (7:00AM Lake Washington) compare respectively sunset and sunrise half a world away from one another. The elegant, nuanced brown and blue skies bleed into softer hues within each work, confirming Altus's power over the landscape genre but underscoring how ambiguous and perhaps unnecessary her political posture is. I daresay if one were to be unaware of the original inspirations, the exhibition would be just as satisfying.