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 Nancy Friese and the Avondale Farm Preserve Paintings
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Claremont, CA
A Place in Time: Contemporary Landscapes Exhibition Catalogue
by Debra Bricker Balken
November 2 to December 14, 2008

For the past thirty years or so, Nancy Friese has worked en plein air, casting the ephemeral dimensions of the landscape as resplendent, sometime near abstract shapes As a keen observer of the weather, an interest inherited from her grandfather, Ben Huset, who was a noted meteorologist from the Great Plains, Friese's depictions of natural phenomena have always been given to elusive and transitory elements, to the way in which light, in particular, alters and animates any composition. In fact, in most of her canvases, the sky plays a leading role, her cloud formations always a primary dramatic feature.

While Friese has been drawn to multiple landscapes, that is, to sites as a disparate and far-flung as Brittany, North Dakota and Japan, most recently, she has worked closer to home at the Avondale Farm Preserve which is part of the Westerly Land Trust in southern Rhode Island. A rich expanse of fields, marshes, wetlands and fresh water ponds that border on the Pawcatuck River estuary, this variegated landscape has yielded a number of studies, sketches, and large-scale paintings by Friese, the two most monumental of which appear in this exhibition [figs.1 & 2] In their panoramic sweep of a bucolic New England landscape and the vestiges of a once working farm — with its split rail and stone fences and now overgrown pastures — she has distilled something of the meteorological character of this preserve, suggesting that these scenes have become anything but idle, activated less by the industry of agriculture than by the theatrical overhang of the sky. Both of these paintings are variations on the same view, approached from slightly differing angles and distances, yet they are caught alternatively in the fall and winter seasons, climatic shifts that result in profoundly differing narratives, and which render these locales as seemingly disconnected.

As such, these two immense paintings — composed as a diptychs because of their size — should be read not only as a pair or as companion pieces but also as a resonant metaphor for the passage of time, for the ways in which weather patterns become representative or a stand-in for the distinct phases of our lives, a subject that has preoccupied many artists since the Middle Ages. But unlike the morality tales that underlie most depictions of the seasons, and the ominous cycles of birth, decline and death — the planting of seeds, their growth and subsequent harvest a particularly rich allegory — Friese dispenses with any such meanings, finding in each period of the year a differing palette of color in the natural world, with light the primary or essential unifier. Like her grandfather's methodical tracking of celestial bodies and their periodic entry into the earth's atmosphere — all of which have a local impact on cloud cover and temperature — she approaches the Avondale Farm Preserve with equal discipline, working precisely at the same hour each day, a routine that reinforces that weather conditions are never constant, especially when considered on a diurnal basis.

Consequently, her autumn or fall scene is possessed of a quiet, translucent sky, the cumulus clouds lofty and minimal, hidden largely by the two tress and their turning leaves that dominant the foreground. Whereas in the winter component of this two-part series, the masses of clouds are low-lying and watery, filling the canvas with turbulent activity, while mixed with dark, white and pink elements that suggest something of the cold air that they stir and carry. These contrasts and leitmotifs show up first, of course, in her sketches and studies, as in her take on early spring [fig.3], a painting that captures a field in bloom, the middle and upper reaches of the canvas given over to a menacing, black cloud bank. But whatever the suspension of allegory or of an overt story line in these works, they are imbued with clear emotion, connoting the artist's subjective responses to each season, to the manifold possibilities of locating mood in a landscape that is perpetually transformed by fleeting elements.

Friese has recently stated of the paintings that she has produced on the Avondale Farm Preserve, that "If I don't paint outdoors, they become too stylized like Emily Carr,"1 an artist for whom she has also expressed admiration, taken by her "power and simplicity."2 Yet the differentiation that she draws with Carr is in the latter's use of symbols, on the mystical presence of some intangible godhead that the Canadian artist found in nature. Moreover, even though Friese has been an avid student of nineteenth century American landscape painting, gravitating to Albert Bierstadt, George Inness, Worthington Whittredge, Thomas Moran, and his wife, Mary Nimmo Moran, while even authoring essays on the latter two figures,3 her own painting procedure has always been radically different from these esteemed sources. That is, her direct experience of the landscape and plein air process is frequently transmitted, particularly in her cloud passages, as abstract form. These are expressionist paintings, after all, that place a certain premium on invention, their brushwork openly broad and fluid, never invisible like some of the more realistic statements of her artistic forbarers.

Perhaps because the sky has become the ascendent feature of her Avondale Farm Preserve paintings, Friese has reserved that area of her canvas to paint last, situating the shape of the terrain and landscape features before contending with the upper regions of the atmosphere. She knows that this expanse is most critical, the cloud itself a potent carrier of emotion. And once worked and reworked to resolution, her alternating placid and turbulent scenes become latter-day, powerful tropes for the life cycle.

A Place in Time: Contemporary Landscapes Exhibition Catalogue
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Claremont, CA
November 2 to December 14, 2008

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