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New American landscapes at Flanders

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I can see why a contemporary artist would have a rough go of it—if what he's into is landscapes. Greg Lindquist has an uphill battle. He does landscapes. And he's a painter. He's a landscape painter. Ouch. That will put you on the defensive at this particular moment in art. But Lindquist is up to the task. In the gallery notes for the show he has curated at Flanders Gallery, he talks about the mid-19th-century painter Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. He talks about how those painters, fired up about grand concepts like Manifest Destiny, used the American landscape to forcefully deliver their ideals.

After Destiny: The Contemporary American Landscape brings us seven painters, including Lindquist himself, who solidly prove that artwork about landscape still has the capacity to contain Big Ideas and resonate meaningfully, even urgently, with contemporary life. In some ways the terms of the show are established by Alberto Borea's small architectural collages, which tell us something new about the idea of landscape by the simple fact that they are devoid of nature. Borea presents images of McMansions that have been sliced, diced and reconstituted in a void pictorial space that has been subtly sprayed with specks of black. Cut-out strips that jut into space give Borea's structures the precarious sense of being supported by stilts—teetering—recasting them as lean-to shacks.

Lindquist's paintings are beautifully rendered images of urban desolation, done in a palette of smog brown, smudge gray and soot black. These are anti-landscapes—non-scapes—forgotten architectures, hinterland reveries, demarcated by tire tracks and detritus. "The Theatrics of Interior/ Non-Interior" (2010) is a deftly balanced composition framing the space of an underpass. It is a privileged view of a place where most of us would never find ourselves. If inhabited at all, it is a place more commonly associated with homelessness, gang activity, drug use and poverty.

For Lindquist, poverty and impoverishment can be detected in landscape. But if poverty is indeed a place in Lindquist's visual semantics, the elegance of his work also frames that place as exotic, aesthetic, strangely idealized—especially when viewed in the air-conditioned white space of the gallery. These problematic aspects of Lindquist's paintings are not necessarily failures, however. They are questions for all of us to consider as we struggle to square their stylized elegance with the squalor of their source.

In focusing her photographic practice solely on her hometown of Braddock, Pa., LaToya Ruby Frazier has achieved an extraordinary level of fluency and virtuosity in articulating a specific condition of despair, injustice and environmental ruin. In "Home on Braddock Avenue" (2007), a crumbling building—what could more accurately be called a heap of debris—fills the frame. By insisting on calling this disaster area a "home," Frazier forces us to recognize the seemingly impossible fact that it once sheltered and protected people. With this single word Frazier invokes the idea of home, with all of its connotations of warmth and comfort, as we stand in front of this depiction of degradation and loss.

Each of the artists in After Destiny delivers a vital and distinct point of view in interpreting landscapes. Mary Mattingly's digitally manipulated images are environmental sci-fi nightmares that feature nomadic figures at the end of the world. Cameron Martin's disciplined nature studies are meditations in paleness, where faded-out visual information becomes a metaphor for loss, for death. Ellen Phelan's hazy, textured romantic prints share a rich color palette with Maxfield Parrish, but compared with the other works in the show they carry less conceptual weight. It may be that Phelan's aesthetic strategy, which a few decades ago felt new, has been absorbed into the dominant visual paradigm. This is to Phelan's credit, but how to resolve the fact that at this point there's probably an app for it?

Finally, in a canny curatorial stroke, Lindquist decided to include Xaviera Simmons, who's been represented in major shows in the Triangle in the past few years (The Record at the Nasher, and now in 30 Americans at the North Carolina Museum of Art). Her signature photographic works situate the artist in narrative depictions of shifting selves—a goddess in a long print dress with a fishing pole, posed midstream, a pigtailed girl in black skipping past an old boarded-up house, a chic explorer with a map of Utah and a Pentax camera adrift in a harsh desertscape, a powerful diva in a sculptural black dress standing on a cliff overlooking a barren Southwestern valley, pointing with fierce intention into the distance.

Simmons' inclusion in a show about landscapes asks us to consider in what ways landscape is an extension of personae. We are given the opportunity to experience Simmons' work in a fuller way, allowing us to see beyond her powerful presence(s) and begin to perceive how we are all simultaneously of and in the environments that contain us.

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