Seeing an art show at Macky Auditorium feels more like going to church than a gallery. The sunlight drifts in through high lancet windows, illuminating columns of dust and warming the cool air coming off the thick rock walls. Music from student ensembles drifts through the building adding a soundtrack for visitors to the art show in the main gallery, Sangeeta Reddy’s Fractured Landscapes of the West, a show by Boulder’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
The paintings transform the entranceway to Macky’s main auditorium from an in-between room into a destination in its own right. The paintings glow under the spotlights in blocks of tan, brown, crimson and blue. The colors are laid in careful shapes, some sharp and angular, others rotund and billowing.
From far away, you can make out a landscape, but just barely, not because it’s not obvious, but because it’s unusual to see a mountain or bluff from all its angles at once. It is as if the viewer is a part of the landscape, walking through and around it.
But, standing still at the foot of a towering canvas is a feeling of being small, not insignificant, but humbled by the landscape depicted above.
“That is how you feel when you are in that landscape. This body of work distills it down to that experience,” Reddy says. “It is something so much larger than you, the landscape, so if some measure of that feeling of awe comes through, then I think that is a very happy accident that I can’t consciously recreate.“
Upon closer inspection, the details of the painting gain prominence. Fractures in the rock are depicted violently by jagged lines and extreme angles. Each shape in the composition is made of brush strokes that express the movement of the painter’s hand, indicating the direction of the motion in each feature of the landscape.
The paintings look like a mix between Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso — the bridge between the impressionism of the 19th century and the cubism that defined the early 20th. In the work of these two artists, one can track the deconstruction of nature into a system of basic forms.
Cézanne’s earliest works drew from the impressionists, who incorporated the passage of time into a painting. Toward the end of Cézanne’s life and career, he went one step further, allowing not just for the movement of time, but for the fluctuations of his mind to affect the image. The result was a fractured scene, showing many perspectives simultaneously.
This departure from convention made room for the genius of Picasso to flourish in paintings like “Guernica,” where war is no longer depicted as a mere scene, but as an experience of death and destruction that can only be portrayed by incorporating the emotional and political elements. The objects of the scene appear destructed, broken up and reassembled in a form that points to a larger context. The result is powerful, somehow more realistic through its departure from reality.
Reddy’s exhibition captures the West along that spectrum, from impressionism to cubism and beyond, showing the landscape not as it appears, but as it is experienced.
One of her subjects in the show is Ship Rock, a 1,500-foot eroded volcanic plume towering above the high-desert plain of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico’s San Juan County. The English name for the formation derives from the peak’s resemblance to an enormous 19th-century clipper ship; while the Navajo name for the peak, Tsé Bit’a’í or “winged rock,” refers to the legend of the great bird that brought the Navajo from the north to their present lands.
Whether imagined as sails or wings, the mountain has a character of flight, emphasized by the dikes radiating from its base, where lines of liquid lava once spewed up through the earth rather than pouring from the volcano’s mouth.
Reddy’s “Ship Rock #5” captures the iconic landmark as spacious, voluminous and bigger than life. It depicts the rock jutting out of the earth as the sky shrinks toward the top edge of the canvas. Flattened lines break up the otherwise uninterrupted perspective of the earth, disrupting the illusion of continuous space.
The overall feeling is tumultuous, a reminder that although the mountain appears fixed and unchanging to the viewer, it is actually the embodiment of movement of the earth, on a time scale far beyond the ticking of a clock. The painting shows the stillness of the land while pointing to the events of their creation, both tectonic and minute. This interpretation of time is geologic, so vast that it imagines rock as a liquid flowing over millions of years.
“You are looking up at these landmarks and they are larger than life,” Reddy says. “They have this stillness as you walk into them. Nothing moves, literally, nothing moves. But you know that they were made because of these huge tectonic movements — rocks have broken and thrust up and twisted — all of this is frozen in time in that rock.
“And then after that, for another million years, there is a slow erosion that takes place, this slow movement of cracking and expanding. There is a lot of activity that has happened that is latent in all of this stillness. That is what I hope to capture.”
Reddy grew up in India in Hyderabad on the Deccan Plateau, the oldest volcanic flats on Earth. She spent her childhood playing among the huge, gray boulders that dotted the land, remnants of the mountains that eroded long ago.
With a strong connection to the nature and geology of her homeland, Reddy first came to the United States in 1978. Based on her past in India and after watching a few Western movies, she thought she understood the American West, but nothing prepared her for her first trip to the deserts of Utah and New Mexico or for the profound impact those places would have on her art.
Up until 2000, Reddy’s paintings were modern, abstract and minimalist, each canvas sparsely populated with shapes and lines meant to draw the viewer into a meditative contemplation. Her art was driven by an Indian philosophy that she studied in college — the idea that separateness is an illusion and that all perspectives serve to define the whole of which we are all a part. But she always struggled with the abstract ideas getting too far out.
“The idea was that nothing defines or confines,” Reddy says. “Instead, you arrive at the description of a thing by saying what it is not. When you cannot subtract any more, then you have arrived at the description of what something is. I thought it would be interesting to try to work towards the idea. But how do you represent something that defies representation?”
The land, she says, drew her back to physical reality.
Reddy’s first landscapes — like “Ghost Ranch Formations” in 2002 — a pastel on sandpaper, are literal interpretations of the landscape that show a place as a product of its features, with sky at the top, earth below and a prominent landscape feature squarely in the center.
There is some whimsy in the paintings, a hint of movement in the thin brush strokes that compose the piece, reminders to the viewer that the paintings were made outdoors allowing the painter to capture the subtle passing of time.
But Reddy felt these early works didn’t incorporate the larger philosophies that drove her to make art in the first place. Instead, the paintings seemed more like taking a picture, a snapshot of a moment that fell short of conveying an experience.
Reddy decided to give herself time and distance from the landscapes and returned home for the seclusion of her studio. For six weeks, she closed herself in with only a few pictures of the landscapes and her memory for reference. She quickly abandoned plein air techniques and replaced that realism for simple geometric shapes and interlocking planes, characteristic of cubism.
“I decided what I was after couldn’t be captured by standing in one spot,” Reddy says. “Instead I imagined that I was a bird, just going in and out of the mountains so that I could collect a lot of perspectives simultaneously.
“If I were looking at one part of the painting from a high view, then I could also see the view from the ground and see some formations from the very top. I did this so many times that immersion became really intense. I was seeing all kinds of different angles by which I could draw and work on these landscapes at once.”
The resulting expressions of the desert are full of movement and imagination. Grounded to reality in their earthy hues, but simultaneously pushed back to the fantastical with surprising pops of crimson and cobalt.
Some of the colors are so vivid it is easy to assume they must be a figment of the artist’s imagination. Reddy says if one is patient enough to sit, wait and witness the land with an open mind, the colors will appear.
“It’s like fiction,” Reddy says. “A lot of it is real but overlooked. So the artist has to exaggerate and infuse reality with emotion. Things have to be extrapolated and exaggerated in order to give it that alternate reality. The colors are there, but deep in the reflections of your mind. You have to take what is there and then you have to go on a flight of imagination.”
In a particularly colorful piece, “Red Canyon, River Sky,” bright ribbons of blue and red run across the canvas. The red looks like arteries, the blue like rivers and waterfalls. Both colors take prominence, symbolizing the vital relationship of the landscape, the movement of earth and of water. Occasionally, the cobalt is applied in short upward strokes as if in defiance of gravity — a powerful and subtle reminder of the endless drought of the desert and the sacredness of life amid its sparse presence.
The show contains only a few years of work but comes from a lineage that goes far beyond. Each piece in Reddy’s exhibition features a different fragment of the land in an attempt to convey its unique character.
“I thought about painting landscapes a lot, but I never really felt competent to do it.” Reddy says. “Locked in my studio, I thought to myself, ‘I am in my 50s, I can do whatever I want,’ and it really took the pressure off. When you take that pressure off you let it just come out however it wants to — without judging it is the hardest part, but if you are able to do that then you are completely free.”
The success of the show is felt by standing in the middle of the gallery. There, among her body of work, is a serene feeling of unity with the earth and of the awe it inspires.
“One by one it feels so little and if you stop to look at those little pieces it can feel underwhelming,” Reddy says. “Then, four years later, I can look back at a body of work that somehow captures what I was after, not just piece by piece, but all together.”
On the Bill: Sangeeta Reddy: Fractured Landscapes of the West. BMoCA at Macky, 285 University Ave., Boulder, 303-492-8423. Through May 29.