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Paula Wilson participates in Plein Air at MOCA Tuscon

May 14, 2022

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On view May 14, 2022 through February 5, 2023

Plein Air explores shifting ideas of western landscape, painting, and fieldwork. Traditional plein air painting, which typically involves painting outdoors in a single sitting to capture a vista in a certain quality of light, is taken as a point of departure to consider the ways in which humans use, observe, record, and commune with the land.

This group exhibition expands plein air to include contemporary works of painting, video, mapping, multidisciplinary research, and installation, that involve the act of painting outdoors.

Outdoor painting from observation lays the ground for layered portrayals of complex landscapes of personal significance. Esteban Cabeza de Baca’s paintings, often started as landscapes painted en plein air, are portals through time and to places linked to the artist’s own lived experience. Working in relation to people, plants, histories, practices, and environments, iris yirei hu uses paint, language, fiber, soil, and other organic matter to create vibrant assemblages that trace networks within a landscape. KB Jones’ plein air watercolor sketches of the oil and gas industry of Oklahoma and West Texas, a region where her family has roots, serve as studies for her large-scale painted tapestries.

Plein air is considered in the context of land surveying, settling, and use. Hillary Mushkin and her Incendiary Traces collaborators show a through line between 19th century and contemporary methods used to survey the US-Mexico border in Survey to Surveillance. Informed by research into the US Bureau of Land Management’s Standard Environmental Color chart, Susanna Battin’s Leave No Trace series poses questions around the use of paint as a tool for concealing human impact on the land.

While conventional landscape paintings look out into the distance, for Sterling Wells, whose observational watercolor paintings involve working at sites of environmental, social, and cultural confluence over extended periods of time, “this is the colonizer’s gaze. I want to depict the ground.” Paula Wilson also challenges western art historical tropes, offering an update to a painting’s creation myth, while calling attention to the act of seeing, as well as being seen.

Each artist attends to the embodied experience of being there. Outdoor painting from observation is approached as ground truth—as bearing witness—a way to experience, process, and understand a range of physical landscapes, and our relationship to them.

Plein Air is organized by guest curator Aurora Tang.

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