Joni Marie Theodorsen

at Contemporary Art Workshop, through May 14

Joni Marie Theodorsen’s 16 new works at Contemporary Art Workshop have a strong conceptual dimension: reflecting on the history of Western landscape painting, she presents abstracted landscapes divided into two or three fields–ground, sky, and in some cases horizon lines. In one large untitled pencil drawing, the sky is represented by vertical lines, the ground (or sea) by horizontals. That the horizontals are thicker near the bottom suggests a landscape drawn in perspective, and the vertical lines–darker near the top–reflect painters’ observations that the sky near the horizon is relatively light. The horizon is also the picture’s most dramatic point because the direction of the lines changes there: the narrow band of white that separates the two fields offers an emptiness whose simplicity is almost spiritual.

Theodorsen’s abstractions may be conceptual, but they’re also poetically resonant. In another untitled drawing, sumi ink and acrylic as well as graphite again create a clash between horizontal and vertical. The sky is marked by vertical bands of black, gray, and pale blue that grow thicker near the top; rather than a narrow band of white at the horizon, the verticals spill into the horizontal field as if they were torrents of rain descending from a stormy sky. Indeed, the sometimes ambiguous associations these works create provide much of their interest.

Theodorsen begins her statement for this show with a quote from philosopher Paul Virilio: “The horizon divides opacity from transparency.” But part of what she does is confound distinctions between opaque landscape and transparent sky. Her verticals give the sky as much presence as the land–an almost frightening weight–and remind us that the air too is changeable and freighted, perhaps with rain or mist.

Part of the richness of Theodorsen’s work likely results from the fact that her inspirations are drawn not only from art and art theory but from direct encounters with a variety of natural environments. While she says in her statement that her work is “based on theories of landscape painting,” she also mentions having grown up near the Pacific Ocean: “The space of the horizon is there as a constant force. It is not so much sentimental as it is reliable.” She’s traveled extensively, she told me, backpacking in Europe and Africa as well as California and Mexico, always searching out the horizon–“the place that can afford you the best view, whether it’s to watch the sunset or the way light changes during the day.” Much earlier, driving cross-country on childhood vacations, “My face was always glued to the window,” she says.

During long hikes, especially in open areas, a sky harboring rain can feel solid and threatening–and the ground can become inexplicably insubstantial. Such reversals are reflected in Constructed Landscape, one of several sculptures in the show. A white rectangular panel is divided into three areas distinguished only by how far they stand out from the wall: the earth is the thickest, the sky thinner, and the horizon band the thinnest. This all-white object offers the abstracted essence of landscape painting while its imageless simplicity emphasizes the almost humorously arbitrary nature of representation: why should one area be thicker than another?

Three other landscape sculptures are brightly painted, almost cartoonish, apparently joking on the reductive, predictable structure of conventional landscapes. In Heavy Sky, or Landscape for H.C. Westermann, one box is elevated a few inches above another on four small white poles. The blue and white upper box suggests sky while the green checkerboard on top of the lower hints at fields, and the sides, showing cross sections of the box’s plywood panels, suggest layers of soil or geological strata. The open area between them recalls the monumental plazas around and beneath modernist skyscrapers and suggests freedom: this is the space a hiker would traverse, the imagined horizon toward which a trekker journeys.

In a group of works she calls “font landscapes” Theodorsen arranges letters in various fonts to suggest the perspective of a landscape painting, in which “objects get smaller in the distance.” The side-by-side diptych Double Landscape, Atmospheric started as two collages of words and letters cut from newspapers, then pasted horizontally in the lower portions and vertically in the upper, with the largest fonts at the bottom and top and the smallest ones clustered around the horizon. Theodorsen then painted over the letters, in many cases making them harder to read; some were also flipped left to right or upside down. The few words left intact don’t suggest any profound themes.

Instead the texts reflect the denial of obvious meaning also found in the work of Jasper Johns, whom Theodorsen admires. She also mentions Franz Kline, whose newspaper collages helped inspire these; Mark Tobey, for his west-coast “sense of space and light”; and a Chinese calligrapher she studied with in college, who stressed learning different styles of line rather than the characters’ meanings. But the effect of Double Landscape, Atmospheric goes beyond its influences. We seem to see nature itself overrun by words–which the painter works hard to obliterate, attempting to see beyond the human presence cluttering up the world.