at Peter Miller Gallery, through May 31

“Traditionally,” writes Tula Telfair, “landscape painting has served as a vehicle of transcendence from the troubles of our changing and material world to the romance of a stable and spiritually grand existence.” Her sensuous, seductive, soft-focus landscape images, new works on view at the Peter Miller Gallery, might provide just such an escape–except that each consists of four or more canvases each depicting a different scene. One’s wish to enter any one of these peaceful worlds, Telfair writes, is confounded by the presence of several of them, “prevent [ing] the romantic escape provided by most traditional landscape paintings.”

Six Including This One presents six long, narrow landscape paintings framed separately and mounted vertically, with space between them, on the gallery wall. At first I thought these panoramic views of land and sky might be different fragments of a continuous landscape: a body of water in the third appears to continue in the fourth. But the red rocks at the edge of the third become dark foliage in the fourth. And in some, the vegetation and topography are different enough to suggest completely different locations.

Brighter areas–a patch of blue sky, light on water–appear to glow from within, the result, Telfair says, of layers of glaze. Darker areas appear as near voids: they seem to gather and absorb any surrounding light. The result is somewhat abstract, self-contained landscapes whose soft focus and variable light suggest intense but disconnected memories–landscape fragments recalled from a long-ago train trip or from a dream. And in fact none of these six, nor any of the other landscape images in the show, was painted from nature; all were created in the studio, “from recollections of moments spent in landscape,” Telfair says. The viewer is never firmly anchored in an actual place–he’s led into a world of mental images infinite in number and equal in legitimacy.

All the other works here combine separate canvases within a single frame, leaving only a narrow crack at the borders–a juxtaposition even more radical than the joining of different landscapes in Six Including This One. Some of the canvases in each work are covered with a single solid color, so that representational images are juxtaposed with pure paint. Abstract Reiteration is a grid of four squares: the upper left square is a purple gray, and the lower right one blue gray. The other two canvases are simple landscapes: in one, a road moves across the foreground, while in the other a road recedes from foreground to background. Both grayish roads end at the blue gray panel, which is almost the same color. Flexible Foundation is the same size and format, but here squares of gray and lavender gray are juxtaposed with two dark, brooding landscapes whose skies echo the gray in one square while fragments of the land contain the lavender in the other.

What’s powerful and exciting about these two works, and most of the pieces in the show, is the way they hold in precise balance two sets of ideas. On the one hand, juxtaposing solid paint with landscape is a classic modernist move. In this view all “realistic” paintings, especially “three-dimensional” landscapes, are illusions: seeing landscape and solid paint together reveals the primacy of the material from which the representational picture was made. But Telfair also casts some doubt on this academic argument by equating solid color and picture–she refuses to choose which is more interesting or more “real.” I found myself thinking of the work of Gerhard Richter, one of my favorite living artists. This German painter works in a variety of styles: a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art juxtaposed paintings of many solid colors arranged in a grid with soft-focus paintings of rural buildings. Seeing several such works in one exhibit makes one question whether any form of image, abstract or realist, is in any way true.

Unlike Richter’s exhibits, Telfair’s paintings display a surprising visual unity. The fact that the solid squares repeat colors in the landscapes encourages one to view the solid squares as giant close-ups of parts of the picture. Many of the color panels also have a painterly surface. The gray in Flexible Foundation is smeared with different thicknesses of paint, while the lavender has tiny dots or “buds” of paint, which are also found in the two landscape squares. The solid squares seem not “pure” colors but paintings themselves, while the landscapes–or parts of them–can be seen as mere colors. One feels even more removed from any sense that this is an actual landscape, at the same time drawing closer to the painter’s world of imagined scenes and daubs of pigment.

Telfair’s ambivalence about the “reality” of actual landscapes may have its roots in her unusual childhood. She moved with her parents while still a baby to Gabon in West Africa, where they lived until she was seven. Gabon is not exactly on the main tourist route, and she remembers family dinners with a host of eccentric characters. She was also exposed to a variety of local religions. Perhaps most important, she traveled a lot–her father was a mining prospector for the Gabonese government. “Home is where you hang your hat” was a family motto. But she also remembers returning to places and noticing how changed they were: “The countries we were in . . . were in political turmoil. . . . Things were never what you thought they were before . . . there was always a sensation of the rug being pulled out from under you.”

Viewed in the context of Telfair’s early experiences, these works can be seen as little narratives of personal salvation. One cannot trust the ever-changing external world; the only truth is the imprints it leaves on the mind. But for a painter, there is another reality as well: paint itself. Course by Course consists of four canvases; three square ones on the top, and a thinner, long one on the bottom. Each square contains a different shade of gray, each with a different surface texture–small brushstrokes on the square at the left, heavy ones in the center square, and an almost smooth surface at the right. The fuzzy gray and white landscape contains all three textures: the two coarse ones in the sky, the smooth one in the land. The artist has remade the world into paint; “reality” is what she produces in her studio.

But in most of the other works the landscapes are more detailed and more evocative of real nature, resulting in a stronger contrast between solid colors and pictures. Three horizontal strips of landscape in Massing of the Elevations, placed atop each other, are flanked by a vertical rectangle of black at one side and blue at the other; under the bottom landscape runs a horizontal strip of gray. The landscapes are all richly detailed yellowish scenes of semidesert with varied hills and mostly blue skies. At first the color bands don’t seem to match the scenes: only a few of the darkest landscape areas approach deep black, and the skies are mostly a different shade of blue than what one sees in the strip. These disparities tend to pull the parts of the work away from each other, but a few tiny connections, small bits of sky or land that match the blue or black, also draw them together.

The show’s strongest piece is also the largest, the four-foot-by-eight-foot Three Solutions to the Design. Running beneath three vertical bands of landscape is a solid light gray panel just as wide as they are, helping to balance this grand work. A pale blue gray canvas and a pale pink one form the sides. The three landscapes are very different: the top one has a road at the center that creates depth by extending from the foreground to the background; the middle one shows a stream that begins in the center foreground and winds abruptly to the left; and the bottom is mostly of a meadow. The top landscape is sparse; the middle one is busier, filled with bodies of water and trees and bushes; and the bottom scene is illuminated by bright light at the center and is more shadowed at the sides. Each sky is a different color. Thus not only are these views of very different places but each picture is organized on a completely different compositional principle.

But if Telfair’s world is riven by differences, the artist can at least find ways to hold them in balance. Each of the color bands in Three Solutions, surrounding the pictures on three sides almost like a frame, is close to the color of one of the three skies. The essential element of all landscapes in the horizon line, the place where land meets sky; but Telfair has added a second meeting point–the point at which the bottom foreground of a landscape meets the sky of the landscape below. A natural phenomenon and the painter’s construction are thus compared and almost equated, just as Telfair balances the ideas of landscape as a view of nature and as a self-contained and constructed world. We have in these works the record of a painter who has found a true home in her art.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Peter Miller Gallery.