Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 22, 2007 with the permission of the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Hearst Art Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:

Town and Country: Jessica Dunne and Louis LaBrie

By Meredith Tromble


Cities and towns may themselves be considered ecosystems, at least to the extent that biomass circulates through them to feed their inhabitants. The diagram of this circulation, however, must include processes occurring outside cities and towns, because urban centers have always depended on their countrysides for food.

- Manuel DeLanda, from A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History


One could say that there has always been "land" since humans emerged to name the world, but was there "country" before there was "town?" The two word/images work together, making each other. "Town" could not exist without its ecosystem partner "country," and "country" is distinguished from "land" by its opposition to "town." In calling this exhibition "Town and Country" curator Julie Armistead directs the viewer's attention to this partnership, as it is reflected in the works of Jessica Dunne and Louis LaBrie.

Armistead's choice of focus is a subtle one; it penetrates the surface of the works, which for the most part show little overt human activity. But as the exhibition title suggests, social forces are at work everywhere in these paintings and prints, if one knows how to look. Dunne and LaBrie are alike in reporting, precisely, on the world they see. (LaBrie can tell you, to the minute, the time of day he took a source photograph and Dunne describes herself as "obsessed with capturing the weather.") They value particulars of place and time, and so their works relate to the issues of their moment, including the vulnerability of the system that binds town and country into a human-friendly environment.

The works of Dunne and LaBrie make interesting companions because they create complementary views of this interconnected system. Land forms swell beneath the roads in Dunne's works and roads carry LaBrie to his "untouched" vistas. There are similarities in the methods and histories of the two painters: both artists make use of photographs, both have taproots in Photorealist and Bay Area Figurative styles. LaBrie studied with Irma Cavat and Dunne studied with Robert Bechtle, LaBrie worked for a time with Paul Wonner and Dunne has had a long-term friendship with both Wonner and William Theophilus Brown. And, in their early years, both artists resisted peer pressure to abandon landscape for something more "up-to-date."

Landscape as a genre of painting emerged in response to the Industrial Revolution. There were painted vistas in earlier European art, but they were settings for human stories (think Mona Lisa). As developing towns sucked population from the country, poets and painters began to make romanticized views of unpeopled, "unspoiled" country (evidence, of course, of the widespread intuition that industrial pollution was spoiling normal places).

LaBrie imagines "country" in just this way. For him, it is a place of freedom and escape from "town." In the romantic tradition, he sometimes heightens the exoticism of the view by framing out structures and roads. But he knows the reality his choice of view has obscured. In The Edge (2006), for example, made from a photograph in the Big Sur region, a "dinky motel" called the Lucia Lodge is hiding inside the fog bank.

When LaBrie walks through his studio discussing his works, each one evokes the story of a trip, a break from daily life. But each story also circles back to the work, the friends, the activities of life in town. The back-and-forth between involvement and escape is constant, driven by longing for an idealized tranquil place which remains, always, just over the horizon. Another view at Big Sur, Afternoon Sunset (2003), encapsulates this very human yearning. The tiny black fleck at the skyline is a whale, a whale that seemed to appear miraculously on the day of a memorial service for LaBrie's best friend. LaBrie calls this work "the most subtle painting I ever made," and one doesn't have to know the story to sense the ache and longing the departing speck leaves in the image.

Gauiota (2003) is a kind of memorial to that same friend, a view from the place where he died towards the spot where his ashes were scattered. Intimations of a journey into darkness anchor the scene in the form of a train trestle disappearing into trees at the very bottom. It also happens that, at this location, a traveler going south on Highway 101 suddenly emerges from a tunnel to a burst of light and the ocean view. Whether one imagines the journey as towards darkness or towards light, the intense contrast between the black land and the sparkling sea speaks of separation. LaBrie marshalled the particulars of the terrain to encode his emotions on the death of his friend.

The source photograph for Road Less Taken (2006) was taken in the Alabama Hills near Mt. Whitney, looking across the Owens Valley. The titular road looks to be abandoned and fading back into the forest. Perhaps this place is escaping the reach of civilization? But even if one forgets to ask how the painter/photographer arrived at the spot, the dust coloring the atmosphere is collateral evidence of human activity. The ruby tones are the remains of an alkali dust storm. When Owens Lake was drained to slake the thirst of Los Angelenos, dust hurricanes started roaring through the valley. The magical atmosphere is the dying breath of the Valley's previous ecosystem.

The miniature scale of paintings such as Veil of Fog (2006), Cattails, Mount Shasta (2003), and The Long Way Home (2000) -- indeed, of most of LaBrie's works -- contributes to the sensation that these scenes are memories, places that exist in the past, rather than present landscapes inviting the viewer to walk in and participate in the moment. The yellow dirt road in The Long Way Home curls through the dry pastures of Briones Regional Park, but it must eventually connect with a road that connects with a highway that heads back to town.

The town at the other end of the road stays in the "subconscious" of LaBrie's works, but it is the deliberate focus of Dunne's. She has written of her own personal epiphany regarding development: "While driving down the highway at night in my hometown, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for my childhood. I then realized there was a brownout and -- with all the streetlights extinguished -- the dark road was as I had experienced it as a child, before we replaced stars with sodium-vapor bulbs."

Her paintings and prints mirror this awareness of the natural world above, below, and around the city's hardscape. In Escape from the Zoo (2003), Dunne uses low light and massing to transform the parking lot of the San Francisco Zoo into a wild place, much more barbaric than the caged animals. The deformed evergreens in their islands of grass gang into a dark forest, and one hopes for the driver's sake that the barrier lifts on cue.

In the monotype Almost One (1998), puddles of rain affirm the presence of nature even at a toll plaza; in Sloat Silhouette (2004) Dunne presents a stretch of asphalt and concrete as a forlorn outpost of the town. The ocean holds the distance as the natural world moves in from the right in a splintery spray of palm fronds, the most animate thing in sight. The central street lamp shines, but does not look to be a match for the darkness seeping in with the encroaching foliage.

In Velocity (2000), Dunne zooms the viewer up and over a freeway crossing. The concrete ribbons arc toward the horizon, but the composition holds them in check. A mantle of townscape stops their drive, and from the aerial viewpoint, it can be seen that trees alternate with structures -- "country" intertwines with "town." But visually the drivers zooming along the freeway are one with their automobiles; absorbed in motion they are, for the moment, insulated from the world and unaware of their role in the system.

If the interpretation of the view in Velocity as a view of an ecosystem seems like heavy freight, regard the impact of dropping the viewpoint. Dunne named Century 21 (2006), a night view of freeway stanchions, after a movie theater. But as no theater appears in the image, the words are free to sprawl over the picture, implying that Dunne sees these unromantic concrete caves as quintessential twenty-first century places. She finds gorgeous gradations in the dark colors of night, but still this is not a comfortable or hospitable environment.

When Dunne titled her painting of a man turning his back to the street to photograph the ocean The Beholder (2001), she injected her subject with drama. To "behold" is Biblical, portentous. And the looming stoplight could be flashing a warning. As a representative of the streetscape, it dominates the scene, although the man ignores it to take an image of the ocean with his camera.

One might imagine that human subjects are free to contemplate "landscape" or "country," before safely returning to "town." But nature is a 360 degree system. Belief in the independence of "town" and "country" endangers us; their relationship is a relationship we need to understand. By witnessing the environment with their brushes, landscape painters such as Dunne and LaBrie offer a precious opportunity to think about the world today.


About the author:

Meredith Tromble is an Associate Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she teaches writing, interdisciplinary studio, and contemporary art history. She has also been Editor-in-Chief of Artweek, founding editor of Art Contemporaries and art editor for LIMN and Breathe magazines. Tromble is a member of the artists collective Stretcher which publishes www. stretcher.org and has shown at Southern Exposure and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.


Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Julie Armistead and Heidi Donner of the Hearst Art Gallery for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text. Ms. Armistead advised TFAO on June 26, 2007 that the author gave permission for Resource Library to reprint the essay. Readers may also enjoy our article: Town and Country: Jessica Dunne and Louis LaBrie (4/11/07)


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