Dan VanLandingham Paints the 21st Century Landscape

 
The artist's new work raises the question, What have we done to our natural spaces?

Dan-VanLandingham 1.jpgDan VanLandingham of West Tisbury was already an accomplished painter of Vineyard landscapes when he set out to advance his work with a M.F.A. from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2009. “I had professors and peers saying, ‘Why are you painting landscapes, it’s been done a million times,’” VanLandingham said. “So I just went into a phase where I explored every idea about landscapes that I could think of. A lot of them were failures, but it did evolve my work.”

In the years that followed, VanLandingham emerged with a new stylistic technique, and big ideas about the intersection between landscape painting and contemporary art. His current work thrives on the juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade, exploring the spectrum of landscapes and the human relationship to them.

VanLandingham catalogs a diversity of landscapes by taking photos wherever he goes. “I’ve gotten really good at keeping my eyes on the road and taking a picture out the side of the window while driving,” he said. He then selects and assembles fragments of images — sometimes from hundreds of photos — in Photoshop, and paints from that reference.
The resulting scene may transport a park bench from Brooklyn into a West Tisbury farm scene, or a playground to the foreground of a cascading waterfall. “I like the way it changes the space, the dynamic,” VanLandingham said. “My work has become much more graphic. So instead of trees and stone walls, now I’m adding park benches, and buildings, and cars — all of these visual things that I just find aesthetically pleasing. I use them to balance the painting. I don’t even see them as a functional objects, I just see them as an aesthetic mark.”

"Yard Sale"

“Yard Sale”

By removing these objects from their environments, and stripping them of specific information (such as removing words from a sign or billboard), VanLandingham creates scenes that are at once foreign and strangely familiar. Some have called them dystopian.

While the elements of the constructed landscape often contrast with one another, VanLandingham said he tries to remove any hierarchy between them. This lack of rank makes it unclear if objects are welcome in the landscape, or if they are an imposition. “I try to stay away from one-liners,” VanLandingham said, but he admits the work is part of a “conversation about what we’ve done to natural spaces.”

The titles of his works — “Natural Compromise,” “Private Property,” “Land Management” — provoke questions about our modern relationship to the landscape. “I think the ideas I’m working on are very relevant on the Vineyard, where land is very valuable,” VanLandingham said. “There are challenges here of land conservation, private property issues, accessibility, and the things people actually do with the limited amount of space here.”

VanLandingham’s “Property Markers” series probes those issues, taking idyllic Vineyard scenes and placing obstructive “markers” — boldly colored lines, for instance — in the foreground. “It creates a physical boundary,” VanLandingham said. “The idea of human encroachment on nature is a common theme in contemporary art, but that’s my spin on it.”
His more current series, “Superbia,” explores urban sprawl, pairing picturesque mountain towns with abundant architecture. “I try to make them very neutral,” VanLandingham said. “I’m not necessarily saying that’s a horrible thing, I’m just interested in how that happens, and the visual aspect, where you can literally see human encroachment on nature, and vice versa.”

Examining these junctions is not merely conceptual for VanLandingham — it’s also at the technical core of his style and his chosen media. He still regularly paints more traditional, representational Vineyard landscapes, and he draws on those atmospheric backgrounds for much of his contemporary work. Upon those backgrounds, VanLandingham layers “paint decals,” which he creates by pouring acrylics onto sheets of glass, hand-cutting them into the desired shapes, and collaging them back onto the canvas. “I like the conceptual idea of me physically making these landscapes,” VanLandingham said. “I’m physically building a stone wall. I’ll cut out hundreds of stones from acrylic paint and hand-lay them. Or cut each board for the siding of a barn. So I’m making these analogies to things we actually physically do to landscapes.”

Just as landscapes are impacted by human presence, the world of landscape painting has been impacted by emerging technologies. VanLandingham’s use of Photoshop embraces technology as a tool for scouting the frontiers of landscape VanLandingham said. “But that’s where contemporary art is at right now. There’s such a strong digital element. And what I love is, the possibilities are endless. A lot of people say painting is exhausted at this point, but I am full of ideas.”

While VanLandingham remains inspired by the romantic Hudson River School painters and iconic Island landscape painters like Allen Whiting, “I’m using the tradition of landscape, and what people are familiar with, and making it a 21st century landscape,” Van Landingham said.

So where does landscape painting have left to go?

"Clearcut"

“Clearcut”

For VanLandingham, it begins with a recent commission from his alma mater. VanLandingham was selected by the Savannah College of Art and Design to create an 8-foot by 24-foot mural of the Atlanta skyline for the new Mercedes-Benz stadium, the future home of the Atlanta Falcons, which is set to open in 2017.
This latest landscape is about as urban as it gets. VanLandingham will use his usual attention to detail, constructing half-inch park benches and cutting decals for each window of every skyscraper, even though the work is so large that the painting of it it will require ladders. In the foreground of the painting, a neon sign will be mounted into electrical boxes. VanLandingham said the letters will be 16 inches tall, “like some kind of billboard, mounted in the landscape of the city.”

In more ways than one, this is a huge project for VanLandingham. “I try to make every painting better than the last one, and I feel like this is going to be my best piece to date,” he said. “And the next project after that is going to have to exceed it.”

Dan VanLandingham’s work can be seen at the Workshop Gallery and Studios in Vineyard Haven, the Mikel Hunter Gallery in Edgartown, the Vineyard Artisans Fair in West Tisbury, or online at danvanlandingham.com

Kelsey Perrett is the editor of the MV Times Calendar section, and an associate editor of this magazine. She represents the numbered streets of Edgartown.

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