Earth Pigments 

Three painters who work the land show at Berkeley Art Center.

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The ancient savanna dotted with small trees, unthreatening animals, and winding waterways is the preferred picturesque landscape of Pleistocene hominids, according to Denis Dutton's recent book, The Art Instinct, a thesis confirmed by the ideal-painting questionnaires of Komar and Melamid. In Terrain: Exploring the Language of Landscape, however, Jenny Bloomfield, Christel Dillbohner, and Danae Mattes see the landscape as geology and process, minus familiar fauna and flora. Their paintings in traditional materials — clay and oil ("colored mud," in Philip Guston's words) on wood and canvas — imply that we Cenozoics should adopt a long view, not taking for granted the inborn Pleistocene paradise. Earth to earthlings ....

Bloomfield creates her oils on paper, board, and canvas with liquid black or other earth colors — sometimes set against white backgrounds; sometimes against other subdued colors — that are apparently scraped and squeegeed (like the large, colorful paintings of Gerhard Richter). They read as abstractions and as landscapes in both senses of the word, topography and view. The shaded furrows, ridges, and veils that Bloomfield evokes in her small- and medium-size works — in her Destination Road Series, "Folded Landscape," "Ties," and "Guadalupe Route Meet" — seem monumental and even primal, though not in the 19th-century Romantic sublime sense. The darkened edges, vignetting, and spotting suggest old photographs, or slides, imparting a sense of distance and fragility to what Kenneth Baker termed her "insinuation[s] of landscape."

Dillbohner and Mattes do sculptural installation as well as paintings, so their 2D work is informed by sensibilities attuned to materials and space. Dillbohner continues to find inspiration in the writing of W.G. Sebald; his poem "After Nature," about the painter Grunewald, the scientist Steller, and himself, all concerned with humanity's place in nature, provides what might be termed the voice-over narration to her richly textured and symbolic oil and wax landscapes. "Nach der Natur" is a colossal simulated blackboard or slate covered with handwriting from Sebald; her "Glacial Sea" paintings evoke the sublime and mystical with somber umber/gray-black palettes — somewhat reminiscent of Anselm Kiefer and Morris Graves, who might plausibly have made Sebald's list of culture heroes. Kiefer's materiality comes to mind also with Mattes' heavily textured works, which might almost be made of cracked, baked mud, though they're clay, paper, and pigment on canvas. "Rain, A Hundred Roots Silently Drinking," "Alluvial Study," and "River Bed Folding" look like scientific samples that somehow illustrate the processes governing their own making. Well-produced artist booklets with good illustrations are available. Terrain runs through April 1 at Berkeley Art Center (1275 Walnut St., Berkeley). 510-644-6893 or BerkeleyArtCenter.org

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