The Nature of landscapes

By Lennie Bennett
St. Petersburg Times Art Critic
July 24, 2005

Taylor Ikin, And the River Sang to Me, 2003,
watercolor on YUPO paper.

Tarpon Springs
   An exhibit of works by Taylor Ikin at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art details the beauty around us, with a focus on the Hillsborough River.
   Landscapes for centuries were low on the academic art ladder, above the still life but under historic and religious subjects and portraiture.  They were considered informative, decorative (shudder) but not "high" art.
   In the late 19th century, the rise of photography, a medium that could better record the verisimilitude of a place, made the practical applications of landscape seem obsolete.  Today, installation-type art seems to have replaced the landscape for artists interested in portraying locales in a conceptual, intellectual way; look at Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty as a new version of landscape painting, those big rocks planted in the Great Salt Lake manipulating a scene in a different way.
   Yet realistic landscape paintings have always been popular with the public of their time and often gain greater currency with arbiters of aesthetics as time goes by.  That's because they're evocative.  A landscape can transport contemporary viewers to a familiar place burnished beyond simple, realistic details by the artist's interpretive skills.  For future audiences, they are windows into times past, both geographically and psychologically.
   Thomas Cole's epic depictions of the American landscape in the 19th century, for example, stirred patriotism and pride of ownership in its beauty even as they documented its passing in the face of urbanization.  Now we look at them with a deeper appreciation of those cultural dichotomies, framed by our own feelings about vanishing wilderness and rampant development.
   Taylor Ikin's watercolors will probably never achieve the fame of Cole's landscapes, or Asher Durand's or Frederic Church's, but they function in the same way.  A large series, completed over several years and on display at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, are a micro-story of place, a very small place compared with the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, its protagonists the wetlands, creeks and rivers of west-central Florida.  The big star is the Hillsborough River, which she surveyed from about a dozen vantages, some inaccessible to a casual traveler.

Take a Hike, Too, 2004, watercolor on YUPO paper.

   Ikin's medium, like her subject, has enjoyed lesser status; watercolor has never been taken as seriously as oil painting.  What makes these watercolors more interesting and complex than typical beautiful washes is Ikin's treatment of watercolor as if it were oil-based.  Her technical breakthrough is the result of a synthetic paper she uses that is antithetical to standard watercolor painting, a flat, slick surface with no tooth to absorb the moisture.  Very slow-drying, the paper allows her to "lift" paint, rework sections and slather on thick impasto blobs of undiluted color, so there is an unexpected richness of texture along with depths of tone.
   Most of the paintings are conventionally horizontal rectangles lovingly rendering the colors of the water and plant life indigenous to central Florida. Roseate spoonbills, herons, alligators and wild rabbits blend in rather than stand out.  Man-made elements are jarring presences, almost tacky, even an innocuous old fence or rickety dock.
   Most of the time, the perspective is conventional, too, though occasionally Ikin plays tricks with our eyes, making the river appear to flow up, violating the laws of gravity, rather than into a standard vanishing perspective.
   Paintings of tomatoes, strawberries and citrus fruits, blown up to huge proportions, are luscious endorsements for the fruits of the local soil.
   None of it is profound art. As environmental warnings, they are spoonfuls of sugar that help an unpalatable message go down.  And in that sense, like many generations of landscapes, they are already nostalgic, testimonials to places that exist just so only in one's imagination and optimism.

Lonnie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or

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