Wall Street International Diary Event
Sam Douglas’s landscape paintings appear both familiar and strange. They are familiar because they tap into a tradition of Romantic art in which nature is rendered fecund, sentient and somehow alive. At the same time, they are extraordinarily difficult to pin down: are the vertiginous cliff faces and snow-capped peaks real, or are they the product of the artists’ mind? Their gloaming, otherworldly presence and composite spatiality suggest they are the latter. Indeed, some of his images look somehow like old photographs, faded by chemical decomposition. Such an engagement would suggest that Douglas is interested largely in the status of images qua images: the index untethered from its referent. But if that is the case, why are these works so recognisably connected to actual landscapes?
It is helpful to understand that Douglas is a painter who enjoys the direct experience of the land: he is an outdoor kind of person, who – in the grand tradition of nineteenth-century plein air artists – spends an enormous amount of energy and time hiking and camping out in the wilds. Unlike many of his forebears, he travels on a global scale. He has undertaken expeditions in the Caucasus mountains in Georgia, the Annapurna range in Nepal, Mount Sinai in Egypt, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and the rugged coast of Newfoundland – sketching and photographing the landscapes as he goes. He enjoys high places, sites of ritualistic significance and veneration, areas in which layers of human history are entwined with unspoilt wilderness (the Ten Commandments and Mount Sinai; the holy mountains above the Caspian Sea). Douglas is clearly not a vicarious painter; his work is firmly routed in an immersive experience of the outdoors.
But for all Douglas’s travels, the light, atmosphere and sensibility of his work is very much that of the Bristol Channel (near where he grew up), as well as that of the Somerset and Dorset coastlines. He is an admirer of those Romantic and Impressionist painters who were ‘intoxicated’ by the land in which they lived: Samuel Palmer’s Shoreham, Graham Sutherland’s Pembrokeshire and Paul Nash’s Swanage. The final place in which Douglas’s interest in place comes together is the studio. Here is the crucible in which the overwhelming expanse of the outdoors and the burdensome weight of art history can be tamed and rendered on canvas or board. Douglas takes these traditions and pushes them into a layered, murky realm that is paradoxically startling, new and fresh. Spend time with these works and you will find forms emerging from the fog: a sheep or a cow in the foreground, a factory in the distance. These are works that – like the landscape itself – reward those who immerse themselves in the act of looking.