Walk all the way in; wait and listen; you may just find the sublime
• Bialke's integrative approach to Western landscape art will be on exhibit Friday, Dec. 7
December 2, 2018
Madeleine Bialke, 27, Northwestern's current artist-in-residence, paced around the room where she was to give a talk on landscape art last Wednesday. It was hard to tell whether she was nervous about giving the talk, or just impatient to get started.
But once the overhead fluorescents were switched off and the only light in the darkness was a landscape painting projected on a large screen, Bialke knew exactly what she was about. Although Bialke herself was nearly invisible in the darkness, through image after image of her own work and the works of other landscape artists, Bialke's gentle voice and authoritative words took us all on a fascinating journey through artists' endless search for the sublime.
Before the event began, Bialke took some time to give Alva Review-Courier readers a glimpse inside her life and thoughts on landscape art.
Bialke got her Master of Fine Arts from Boston University in 2016. Since then, she's moved to Brooklyn and has a tiny, closet-size studio that she shares with another painter. She was an adjunct teacher at Brooklyn College for a year, and then, to pay the bills, she works for another Brooklyn artist and does "random odd jobs" for other artists as well.
She's done a handful of residencies, which she values because they give her more time to work on her painting, to spend time in different kinds of landscapes, and to better understand the evolution of landscape painting in various parts of the country.
The Unexpectedness of Transcendence
"When I go to places, like when I go to a residency (such as the Artist-In-Residence Program at Northwestern Oklahoma State University), I don't make a plan of what I'm going to do there," Bialke said. "I just let it change me. I sit and listen to what things are happening. And I've had these amazing moments here, like going to the salt plains."
Kyle Larson, assistant professor of art at NWOSU who runs the Artist-in-Residence Program, drove Bialke out to see the salt plains near Jet.
"It was really cold," she said – adding later that she's not usually so cold-averse, "I was just being a weenie" – "and I looked out (of the car) and saw this white flat space and was like, 'Hey, cool. Uh, I'm done now. We should go back. It's cold." She grinned and shook her head a little.
"And Kyle said, 'Oh, no, you should walk out to where you can dig for the crystals.' And I was just under-dressed and so was he, but we walked out there."
She paused for a moment, remembering.
"And then we were in the middle of the landscape, and it was just ... I saw a mirage for the first time – you know, you hear about these things but you don't see them for yourself. And there were these huge flocks of migrating birds, the Canada geese and the snow geese, and they were all talking to each other, and so it was the sound of the wind and the birds. And someone had driven an ATV in a circle (on the salt flat) and it made this perfect circle, and so it felt almost like this painterly geometric shape was impacting the way that we saw the landscape." Her head tilted, her eyes softened a bit. "Both Kyle and I were very moved.
"But that's one of those things (about inspiration or finding a moment of sublimity) – it's an unexpected thing, and so I think a lot of being in the landscape is just waiting for things to happen.
"When I was younger I would get these feelings of great ... like a feeling of sublimity, or something larger than oneself. And it is! It's like a chill that runs down your spine, all the way to your toes. And so that's what I've been looking for a lot of the time in landscape."
What Is The Sublime?
"The sublime" is defined differently by various cultures, by people living in various geographies or time periods, she said.
Regardless of those differences, while beauty is a component of the sublime, there's much more to it.
"The sublime is often talked about as being the combination of beauty and terror," Bialke said, "like feeling very small and not necessarily comfortable, but there's a sense of okay-ness about it. Especially in the way the Europeans talk about the sublime. There's a bigness about it, and (a feeling of) 'Okay, I'm small, but it's okay that I'm small.'"
(See J.M.W. Turner's "Hannibal Crossing the Alps" on this page for an example of this understanding of the sublime.)
American landscape painters like the Luminists had a different take on the sublime, she said. Luminism was a 19th-century American approach to landscape painting characterized by the effect of light on a landscape.
"The Luminists thought about sublime as a way of looking at something terrifying and finding an inner calm," she said, "whereas the European Sublime people looked expansively and felt small."
(An example of the American approach to the sublime can be seen in Albert Bierstadt's "Deer at Sunset," this page.)
The American approach "had implications in defining a pastoral narrative of 'Oh, when everything is bucolic and pleasant and peaceful I'm also peaceful,'" Bialke said. "The landscape's peaceful; I'm peaceful; and so now we've kind of limited the sublime to national parks."
These movements, these approaches to seeing nature, create conventions that future landscape artists react to – whether that be to perpetuate them or elaborate on them, or to change or reject them.
"A lot of landscape painting is based on all these conventions, a sort of manufactured space of what we might think a landscape looks like. But often the landscape doesn't look like that at all," Bialke said.
Painting Landscapes about Landscape Paintings
Bialke's own landscapes have evolved along with her understanding of nature and space, as well as her analysis of other landscape artists.
"I used to paint about the sublime (but) the more I went through my own "personal curriculum" the more I decided to paint landscape paintings about landscape paintings, which is a different conversation," she said. "The work here (in her studio at Northwestern) relates to the history of landscape painting."
Since being in Oklahoma, she's visited a number of the region's best museums, and, as everything does, it's changing how she sees landscapes and how she paints them.
"A lot of the really great American paintings are in the museums around here," she said. "There was a university trip to Crystal Bridges (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas), which has a great collection of early American paintings. Kyle and I went to the Gilcrease and the Philbrook in Tulsa, both very fine collections.
"I mean, I've never seen so many Bierstadt paintings in my life. On the East Coast there are a couple of tiny museums that focus on American art, but it's always like you'll have three Turners and then one Bierstadt.
"So, with these paintings (indicating her most recent work, hanging on the walls of her studio) I've been drawing from those resources."
One example of that is Bialke's recent painting titled "Catlin Utopia."
George Catlin was an American artist who specialized in painting the Old West. He traveled to the West five times in the 1830s and was one of the first to paint buffalo. Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa has more than 100 examples of George Catlin's work.
"Nowdays, his paintings look really hokey, but it seems like he must have a sense of humor. But I don't think these look hokey. It feels like he was trying to organize the land. There's nothing wild about it. Even the grass isn't thick. So he's dominating it."
But, of course, an artist can't completely cut himself off from his own culture and his own identity when creating something.
Bialke agrees. "Oh, yeah. I've been trying forever to make a landscape that doesn't feel dominated, and I feel like it's impossible. I might spent my whole life and never do it."
Bialke's "Catlin Utopia" seems to clearly be a direct response to Catlin's work, particularly Catlin's "Buffalo Hunt." "I'm not really critiquing landscape painting," she said, "I'm just adding other connections."
She pointed out that Catlin's painting was made before people realized for the first time – when a horse was photographed running – that a horse's feet each comes down at a different time in a different place. So Catlin's buffaloes, painted before this was realized, gallumph along with their front legs and rear legs moving together as if welded across shoulder or hip.
Their way of running just struck Bialke, "so I just wanted to include it into this body of work."
Moments of Transcendence Find Unexpected Ways into Art
Bialke says she's a raccoon when it comes to finding the bits of inspiration that will wind up in a painting.
For example, another of Bialke's recent works has orange trees in the background. "I was kind of inspired by all these orange streetlamps you have around town that cast these really beautiful ghostly glows on the trees," she said. "It's really quite beautiful." And so those orange trees appeared in her painting.
Another of her recent paintings features a very stilted campfire burning on a green field straight up into a blue sky with black smoke rising that forms hard-edged curves at the top.
Bialke saw this odd-looking campfire in a James Wooldridge painting. Wooldridge was a European painter, and that particular painting depicted Native Americans sitting or working around the strange looking fire.
"It's a funny fire, because it's like they didn't know that smoke dissipates into the atmosphere," Bialke said.
Wooldridge himself never actually saw a Native American. His painting was a composite of others' engravings. But his version caught Bialke's artistic attention, and she wanted to include it in the body of work. It was part of the larger narrative of landscape art of the American West.
Trees play a big role in many of Bialke's works because they are a key voice in that narrative.
"In American painting you'll often see a lone tree and it stands for American individualism. The tree that stands on its own. The tree that's weathered but it's still standing – it says a lot about the American ethos," she said. "So, you can put yourself in the place of various symbols in the paintings."
Bialke's painting "American Dream" has such a tree.
"Very simply, there's a large cliff up ahead – you know, the obstacles that we face as a country or something – you've got this tree that is weathered and is leaning on the other tree. And then you've got a little suggestion of a formal landscape painting kind of stuck in the corner."
The main tree is half in the dark and half in the light – "some kind of light," said Bialke.
That light may be due to Bialke's trip to the salt plains.
"I came back from that (trip to the salt plains) thinking I have to make a painting of this experience, and then I felt ... I can't. But I think that blankness has come into my paintings. Like, maybe in that light turning to darkness" on the tree in "American Dream."
Bialke's Work To Be Exhibited Dec. 7
On Friday, Dec. 7, in conjunction with the First Friday Art Walk, Bialke's work created while at Northwestern will be exhibited in the Jesse Dunn Annex from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and her small works will be exhibited at the Graceful Arts Center from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
"I'm hoping that the whole exhibition will give someone a sense of an American narrative," Bialke said. "I don't want to come to a place and tell people what to think, but I do want to share my observations and hope that we can have a conversation."