Nancy Friese and the Practice of Plein Air Painting John Arthur
Plein air painting was brought into wide practice in the mid-nineteenth century by the simple invention of the collapsible metal tube, the development of chemical pigments, the manufacture of portable paper and canvas-covered panels, and the increasing ease of travel.
The early precedents were mapped out by Claude Lorraine's tonal drawings of dawn and dusk in the seventeenth century. Later the paintings of John Constable who studied "the natural history of the skies," had a profound effect on Eugene Delacroix long before Constable was appreciated by his English peers. Additionally, the atmospheric watercolors and canvases of J.M.W. Turner were a major influence on the Impressionists. Proceeding from the examples set by Camille Pissaro, Claude Monet, and Paul Cezanne; Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Emile Bernard, and the Nabis radically altered the concept of landscape painting by moving toward a fusion of literal observation, emotional response, and symbolic content, which carried the theme of nature back into the realm of allegory and expression.
The American practice of plein air painting-from the oil studies of Frederic Church, the western paintings of George Catlin, the watercolors of Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran, to the directly observed canvases of Rackstraw Downes and other contemporaries-remains a significant factor in our visual heritage. Importantly, while attitudes toward the environment have radically changed during the last half century, images of our natural surroundings have taken on a new luster in contemporary American art. And even though the breadth and history of these long and continually evolving phenomena have rarely been acknowledged by the art world, the lure of the physical and sensual exhilaration of the one-to-one encounter with nature that lies at the center of plein air painting shows no signs of diminishing.
Rather than following the course of naturalism-as have Rackstraw Downes and Peter Poskas, for example-the directly observed oils and watercolors by Nancy Friese tilt toward gestural rendering, heightened color, and implied animation. Such expressionistic interpretations are all too easily overlooked in discussions of the plein air tradition, even though it traces back to those charged drawings by Claude and mystical watercolors of Samuel Palmer. In our own twentieth century art there are the sensory illusions of Charles Burchfield, the Maine abstractions of John Marin, and Nell Blaine's effervescent views of Gloucester. One senses a dialogue with these artists of the past in Friese's watercolors, paintings, and prints.
The most recent views continue a course Friese has followed for more than two decades. Light Through the Trees, Last Leaves on Treetops, and Treelit each depict a specific copse in extravagant autumnal foliage-lush greens, yellows, reds, and mauves-fluttering in the crisp light and soft breeze. With the exception of the clear-skied Trees at the Bank of the Bay, the quartet of bay paintings is distinguished by the baroque procession of rose, mauve, and ultramarine cumulus clouds. Across the Bay, Grove, and Stream, are lucid and richly colored summations of the particulars of place.
The poetry of Nancy Friese's scenes, which are rendered with great self-assurance and painterly flair, lies in the fusion of empirical observation and the ambiguities of persona suspended just beneath the surface of all perceptual painting.
Within the Landscape
by Laurel Reuter, Director of North Dakota Museum of Art
"Maybe he marveled while watching the heavens as a toddler in Hedalen, Norway. Maybe his parents directed his attention to the stars as they sailed back and forth across the Atlantic. We know for sure that it was in western Dakota Territory that Ben Huset's interest in the planets turned to fascination and finally to devotion." This self-taught man went on to become the Weatherman of the Great Plains. From 1937 into the 1960s his annual Ben Huset's Forecast served as the farmer's bible.
Huset's granddaughter, the artist Nancy Friese, inherited a similar passion for the natural world. Her prints and paintings spring from astute observation within the landscape. And they are fed by her intense understanding of the forces of weather. Movement, brilliant color, slashing lines, and inner tensions spill onto the canvas and paper and then reappear in woodcuts, drypoints, and aquatints. Weather never exists as a static entity. In her work, change is imminent; the landscape is volatile, hiding great storms and massive cloud buildup, winds, and movement even in moments of calm. The earth, the plant world, and the sky, each have an equal presence just as the whole of her picture plane is potently alive. She works from both the factual and the intuitive and therein lies her art.
The artist credits the Weatherman with her enduring interest in the landscape. For thirty years this has been her subject. No the Fauvists but the grandfather taught her to see the colors of weather. Reflecting sundogs. Northern lights. Rainbows. Fiery sunsets. Heat mirages. Swirling snow transformed by sunlight into an impressionist's palette. For only through light and movement does color exist as a living entity. This is the underriding truth of Friese's art. Like the grandfather, the artist immerses herself into the wilderness of weather, into its untamable energy, into its patterns, and into its beauty, an element never absent in Friese's art. Unfashionable? Perhaps. True to human experience? Certainly.
One wonders if the temperament derived from the fierce weather of Friese's ancesters didn't form her artistic bedrock. Had she been the child of more benign climates would she have made an altogether different kind of art? Recently Friese purchased her grandmotherŐs family homestead in North Dakota, searching not only for home but also a place to paint.