FITCHBURG — “Land Ho!” at the Fitchburg Art Museum places works by eight New England landscape artists among landscape paintings from the museum’s collection. The contemporary works — playful, fractured, epic, focused on tiny details — have a conceptual edge.
With a few exceptions, the older paintings are not a distinguished group. But they do help us to see that landscapes have always been a form of conceptual art, representing concepts about nature and its relationship to society, as well as ideas about painting, and what a painting should accomplish.
In American painting in the past two centuries, landscapes have progressed from the Hudson River School’s romanticized notions of wilderness — glorious, filled with potential — to the more intimate fever dreams rendered by modernists such as Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Arthur Dove. In the last 50 years, landscapes have become more politically charged in response to the way we have battered the environment.
Curator Mary M. Tinti has installed some of the works salon style on a couple of walls, inviting us to chart associations and changes through the years. One such grouping includes an elegant, vaporous abstraction by Helen Frankenthaler, a couple of bucolic scenes by Massachusetts painters Henry Hammond Gallison and Arthur Goodwin, who worked in the late 19th and early 20th century, and contemporary works by Sandy Litchfield and Shona Macdonald.
Macdonald homes in on the tiny, standard items in a suburban landscape that most eyes skirt. Her “Three Objects in a New England Landscape,” from the “Uncanny Valley” series, shares a summer green palette with Goodwin’s scene of houses over a busy river — industry encroaching upon a sleepy town. In Macdonald’s painting, that hint of ugly civilization comes in hooked PVC pipes emerging brightly from a lawn.
Litchfield paints fictional landscapes, skewing perspective, playing with space and simplifying form like a modernist, pushing landscape toward abstraction. In her “Shadow Ranger,” dreamy blue and green mountains loom behind indulgent swipes of yellow, green, and blue. A wedge of civilization winks near the bottom, tiny houses and roads as we might view them from a plane. The delight in paint, and the suggestion that this is a dream and not a place, links her to Frankenthaler.
Sue McNally has been traveling the country, painting sites in each state that have personal resonance for her. Her canvases from the “This Land Is My Land” series startle with their hopped-up colors and dizzying patterns. “Maroon Bells, Colorado,” nearly 10 feet across, is a 21st-century echo of big, majestic Hudson River School paintings.
“Maroon Bells, Colorado” rushes like video shot from a swift-flying drone.
McNally places us at the bottom of a riverbed that lifts beneath our feet in patterns of yellow, green, and coral, then rises abruptly to shimmering walls of turquoise and green — steep mountain walls that cup a liquid blue sky.
McNally’s paintings slap you in the face with their colors — another, “Cow Pond, Massachusetts” backs a claustrophobic, swampy green scene with a lurid orange sky. She provokes awe and the suspicion that something is not quite right. These are not landscapes to be tamed, like those of great painters of the American West such as Albert Bierstadt. They are instead alien, as forbidding as they are beautiful.
A similar sense of unease underlies many of the contemporary works in “Land Ho!” Leila Daw’s “Calling the Earth to Witness” melds two waterways — Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River and the Mississippi — in a gorgeous, map-like mixed-media work that includes Burmese tapestry techniques and discarded foil wrappers. At 19 feet across, it’s a panoramic patchwork of land, sea, and city, with boats crowding the shore. It charts a fairy tale in which water is the hero and civilization is the surreptitious villain.
Some artists shuffle geography and join unlikely sites together. In “Braided Stream Non-Conformity,” Carrie Crane layers topographic views of the Yangtze River in China and the Great Rift Valley in Kenya on clear sheets of plastic, casting shadows on the wall. As she marries sites on different continents, she discovers formal tensions and confluences.
Michele Lauriat crafts from related systems, fractured, illuminated, and refracted. Her “Untitled” (from the series “Phil’s Hill”) is a dense yet airy amalgamation of ghostly saplings, arcing blades of grass, and a whirlwind of textures — bark, pine needles. The older landscapes in “Land Ho!” grapple directly with contours of the land. Lauriat’s paintings leave the reality of a place behind to conjure memories of sensations felt there.
It’s perhaps not fair to say that Sally Curcio’s and Warner Friedman’s landscapes are pure fun (although they are). Friedman, after all, in his trompe-l’oeil paintings, cannily plays with perspective and shaped canvases to throw off our orientation. Curcio’s tiny landscapes trapped under plastic bubbles and built out of pin, beads, and doodads, have an obsessive edge, but also the gleam of a magical kingdom — one that we tower over like hungry giants.
All the works in “Land Ho!” dream of places. They are also screens upon which we project our own fears and yearnings about nature, suburbia, and fairy tale kingdoms. Many may leave you enchanted and unsettled.
At Fitchburg Art Museum, 185 Elm St., Fitchburg, through Jan. 10. 978-345-4207, www.fitchburgartmuseum.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.