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The Intellectual Landscape

The Intellectual Landscape
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Tula Telfair is a New York artist who teaches painting at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and exhibits her large, panoramic landscapes at the Forum Gallery, a bastion of figurative and super-realist painters. To be taken seriously as a contemporary artist while painting firmly in the landscape tradition is no easy feat. The late Neil Welliver managed it by virtue of applying abstract methods to naturalistic illusions of the Maine woods. Tula Telfair, too, has learned the lessons of abstraction, but her visual trope is to paint realistic images of imagined places. She is a painter of intellectual landscapes.

This spring (April 24 to June 27), the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, is presenting Tula Telfair: Landscapes in Counterpoint, an exhibition that features nine new, monumental Telfair landscapes shown in conjunction with three dozen traditional landscapes from the museum collection, paintings that Telfair herself has selected and arranged in salon groupings designed to highlight their formal characteristics rather than matters of style, place or period.

This curatorial role, too, is an intellectualization of landscape painting, creating the titular counterpoint to Telfair’s sweeping, symphonic oils by encouraging viewers to consider not the places depicted but the way they are painted – the tactile quality of the brushwork on the surface, the color relations that conjure the illusion of reality, and the quality of light that artists such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, John Frederick Kensett, Emil Carlsen, and Childe Hassam evoked.

There is a romantic element to the exhibition, for while Telfair invents landscapes rather than observes them, she is often drawing on recollections of places seen in a peripatetic life lived not just in New York and Connecticut but in Africa, Asia and Europe as well. But the romance of Hudson River School and American Impressionist landscapes shown in conjunction with Telfair’s own remembered and imagined modern landscapes is subverted by both the emotional coolness of her paintings and by insistence on intellectual rigor.

In contemporary art, idea always takes precedence over illusion. It is not enough simply to be skillful, an artist must be conceptual as well. The titles Telfair assigns to her paintings – “Pure Formal Manipulation,” “Pleasure Was Considered Decadent,” “Non-Invasive Methods of Examination Were Lacking” – alerts the viewer immediately that these paintings have ambitions beyond mere description. And to re-enforce the formal and intellectual aspirations of her paintings, Telfair often incorporates simple border bands of paint keyed to colors in the landscapes but distinct from the illusion created. What these esoteric titles and extraneous bands of color are meant to tell the viewer is that these are paintings, not pictures.

On Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 6, at 2 p.m. Tula Telfair will discuss her work at the museum.

[Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme, CT. 860-434-5542.]

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