Vanessa Marsh at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

June 2019

Landscape as an art historical genre dates back more than a thousand years in both Western and Eastern traditions, appearing in Ancient Greece as early as 1500 BC and in the Han Dynasty of China between 206 BC and 220 AD. The concept of the “sublime” landscape in philosophy and art was introduced in 18th century Europe and described as evoking feelings of awe from the overpowering qualities of nature. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmond Burke defines the sublime as tension caused by extremes – vastness, magnificence, height, loudness, darkness and light – causing “delightful horror.”

The artists of the Hudson River School in 19th century America adapted these themes of the sublime in their painted landscapes of the United States. Over a century later, the Surrealist movement of the 1920s used landscape imagery to represent the subconscious mind, infusing elements of dreams, the uncanny, and fantasy into this traditional art form. Today, the fascination with recreating imagery of nature continues to thrive, as contemporary artists expand and redefine the genre.

Surreal Sublime explores the resurgence of the sublime and surreal in contemporary landscape art with abstracted, exaggerated, and dreamlike interpretations of nature. With the chaotic political climate, onslaught of natural disasters, and pressing threats to the environment, it is not surprising that artists are returning to themes of the sublime as a reflection on our current times. Through a variety of media, the artists in Surreal Sublime capture a range of emotions using landscape as a representation of psychic space. While the vast beauty of nature draws the viewer in, themes of darkness and turbulence run throughout the show. The works teeter between the natural and synthetic, seductive and dangerous, calm and chaotic, utopian and apocalyptic. In the end, nature reminds us of the cyclical nature of life and our own mortality, that these environments have existed long before us and will remain long after we are gone.