Essay for KAMILLA TALBOT My Scandinavia by Valerie Cornell
Even if you have never seen a painting of Kamilla Talbot’s before, you may feel, looking at the 22 works on paper and seven oil paintings in the show called “My Scandinavia,” a quickening of energy and a subtle constrainment of beauty the independent life of which can only mean breakthrough from what has come earlier. Whether it’s possible to read the source of this newness out of the paintings is a mystery with some depth. A skillful and dogged landscape painter, Kamilla Talbot has always allowed her work, like the rocky Nordic hillsides that have sometimes been her subject, to reflect both the wild and the apparently composed. Future critics might compare her to her great-grandfather, Johannes Larsen (1867-1961), the painter of nature whose luminous stippled blue and gold seascapes and finely observed paintings of birds (as well as his workman’s ethic and understated manner) endeared him to his native Denmark—though it isn’t necessary to invoke Johannes Larsen to appreciate Kamilla Talbot’s Nordic roots and American difference, or the precision of her stance toward the natural world. Her paintings to date—of Catskills trees, tides in and out, raw winter coastlines—feel expressively truthful, and the occasional awkward element—an overlarge shape or sulfurous color, alerting us to her intelligent eye—fails to challenge their pleasingness. We could expect Talbot—born in 1968, she’s barely into mid-career—to forge a lifelong style out of just this, the intelligently, skillfully lovely.
Or not. We are in a boat, in the middle of it, with slate-gray water rising to make a high horizon and a sail, or two sails, wrung and twisting and pushing the canvas into taut abstract divisions by force of a hard sea wind that’s not only implied but felt, withstood. The deck is a light maroon. Smaller triangles are formed by rigging and a negative space of sky at the center of the painting. Without any doubt the artist, invisible but as close as a ghost and whose point of view we take, has dipped her brush in seawater. There is a dark spot like an eye marking the depths just off the boat at the painting’s left edge. The sensation is of shock, tilting.
This watercolor’s title, Rylen: Foresail Set, in fact refers to the Danish boat Rylen, on which Kamilla Talbot sailed and painted for five days last summer at the invitation of the Johannes Larsen Museum in Kerteminde on the island of Funen. Built in 1895 for herring fishing, the small wooden Rylen was early on converted to an expedition boat, and in the 1920s it was Johannes Larsen who sailed on it during several summers, making hundreds of drawings that were later collected in a popular book about the Danish islands. What is now the museum was the Larsen family home, and Rylen nowadays takes artists through the Kattegat (the sea depicted in many of Talbot’s paintings) and connecting waterways, visiting islands and encouraging conservation of the coastline that still looks much as it did in Johannes Larsen’s time. Talbot, who grew up spending summers in Kerteminde, obviously belongs on this boat. At the same time, what an awkward, unpredictable, constricting home it is, and what curious and not immediately readable paintings have come out of it! Forced by circumstance, views are close up, and calculations of distance, water, sky are all ambiguous. Images repeat, with implosive differences. There is the Rylen series of watercolors with their defining twisted sails. The boat is also a setting for figures, mostly painted in gray tones while the details of boat and sea are in color, so that while we recognize that this is the skipper or a passenger, we aren’t fully convinced; it might be a figurehead (if Rylen had one) or a semi-shrouded character from Norse mythology. In several of the paintings it is a bit of the curved boat edge, unobtrusive yet commanding at the lower corner, that sets the language of abstraction for the rectangle. In Kattegat birds lift off from water and as if embossed on the picture plane unite the painting’s upper and lower halves. When there is beauty, and there certainly is, as in the Japanese-looking Pink Surface, the fullness of its serenity, and the ominous tangle of orange rope at the bottom right, make it beauty that knows it is new.
“My Scandinavia” is the felicitous title Kamilla Talbot has given to this show of new paintings (including scenes of Icelandic rocks and Norwegian skerries); it refers to her own artistic perspective on the region as well as the fact that what she’s seen, felt and painted is freshly of the moment: it is her Denmark, her Kattegat, her Mariager Fjord, and not that of her great-grandparents—though of course it is theirs, too, layered in and blowing through the spaces in her work. More encompassingly, and what we can intuit from immersing ourselves in the paintings, “My Scandinavia” is a kind of mental weather, whipped up for the artist out of the conundrum of the ancestral and the new, of being American and Scandinavian in competing measure—weather in the sense of energy, the exciting atmospheric action that precipitates one thing, not forever but thoroughly now, into another. Almost two decades of hard work have brought Talbot here; there is a painterly coalescence into new form—but it is the unexpectedness, the unprojectableness of what “now” looks like—that solves the mystery (riddle is a better word) of what’s happening in this bracing, generous show. Put differently, there are some places you can only get to by boat.
And what is it like, most deeply, to paint in a boat, sometimes calm, admiring the wake, sometimes captive, as if lashed to the mast? It is like painting now, in 2015 or 2016, hewing to the caring to do so, in the midst of everything changing. The paintings in Kamilla Talbot’s “My Scandinavia,” in the Trygve Lie Gallery in the Norwegian Seamen’s Church under the aegis of the American Scandinavian Society, are, out of all proportion to their specificity, a light in a global storm.
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My oil paintings and watercolors explore painterly invention and particularity of place. I am a landscape painter who works from direct observation, from memory and from existing work. Painting intuitively constructed landscapes, I search for a metaphoric, poetic presence, rather than a literal representation of nature. I am developing a vocabulary of flatness and abstraction which co-exists with the depiction of a perceived, representational space.
As my relationship to place evolves, my work shifts toward abstraction. The winter landscape in particular presents a simplified and mysterious bridge for me to explore this shift. Painting in Scandinavia and Upstate New York, “the North” has become a discrete element in my work. It starts with looking at life. I stand in the landscape at my easel looking for an unusual light, structure, or form. The focus is on what I see, not on what I think I see.
The snow, at once white and not white, flattens and abstracts by blanketing. Dark hollows receed. At the edge of the pond the grasses dissect the plane of the water, which in a certain light might attach itself to the foreground plane of grass. Endless pathways are found as colors and planes push forward to the surface and fall back in space. Branches create an organic grid differentiating the space in front of and behind the screen. Marks become the bridge between abstraction and the perceived landscape. Editing and pattern-making establish the important forces in the painting. Invention is also part of my process. Color may be a metaphor for the actual color. A poetic, intuitive stand-in suggested by the tone and intensity of the local color.
OnViewAt Review by John Goodrich, February, 2016
Trygve Lie Gallery may occupy a windowless basement, but it's spacious and elegantly lit – and at the moment it boasts an especially vivid impression of broad sunlight, thanks to the nearly 30 seascapes by painter Kamilla Talbot. Produced mostly during the artist's stay last summer in Denmark – where her great-grandfather was a celebrated painter – these watercolors and oil paintings depict the surrounding sea and islands, often seen from aboard a sailboat, with sails, rigging, and fellow passengers framing the views. All these works possess an immediacy of light and space; views that could have been merely scenic attain a true substantiality – the expansiveness, weight, and tensions of actual experience.
The watercolors make full use of the medium’s unique potential for luminous, blossoming color. (And was there ever a subject more amenable to watercolor than bodies of water?) The artist nimbly catches the optical (and in fact paradoxical) effect of liquid waves turning, up close, into crisp facets of reflected sunlight, and, in the distance, into sonorous, atmospheric blendings. Even as transparent washes, her colors weight the location of elements in such works as “Austevoll Sunrise 2,” in which earthy greens lend a wholeness and density to a foreground slope. Beyond, blues and purples, subtly differentiated, recede as islands in a brilliant turquoise-blue sea, while yellows and reds blaze as the rising sun above.
Several works combine silkscreen and watercolor, intriguingly contrasting the uniform surfaces of ink with the blending and granulating effects of watercolor. The largest works are oil paintings, among them “Coiled Line,” in which the sweeping curve of a boat’s gunwale, bisecting the image, locates the viewer tangibly on the deck that fills the foreground. The gunwale’s shadow subtly darkens a slim portion of the deck, adding dimensionality to its broad plane. Just beyond it, the sea recedes rapidly as ribbons of rich, jewel-like blues and greens. We get a powerful sense of first-hand experience, not through the tactile impression of a breeze or the smell of salt air (though those associations almost immediately follow) but through the visual comprehension of the artist, expressed in the language of painting – a language which Cézanne so aptly described as “a harmony parallel to nature.”
New York Sun Review by John Goodrich, March 8, 2007
Gallery owners have to be resourceful in a city like New York, and in the case of Bruno Marina, survival has required a novel tactic: After an opening reception in the gallery’s attractive exhibition space, the artwork is moved several doors down Atlantic Avenue to a spacious furniture showroom to take advantage of the greater foot traffic there. The gallery then serves as an extension of the showroom. This arrangement means that gallery-goers who miss the opening must contend with an expanse of sofas and lamps.
Under these conditions, some art works would be reduced to accessories. Fortunately, Kamilla Talbot’s oil paintings and watercolor landscapes of New York, Iceland, and Puerto Rico are strong enough to command their own interest. The artist’s painterly surfaces and structures of heightened colors suggest a connection with Hans Hofmann School luminaries like Nell Blaine, Louisa Matthiasdottir, and Albert Kresch. Ms. Talbot’s images, though, have a purposeful lyricism recognizably her own.
Like most of the more than 20 works here, “Bessastadaa River 15” (2006) is smallish (less than 2 feet wide), but packs a punch. This painting muscularly shapes the folds of an Icelandic valley in verdant greens and browns. In the mid-distance, a slim, pale waterfall bisects a rocky bluff, anchoring a particular point in space; it converses with other discreet events, like the lone tree perched on a ridge, and the light note of a sheep grazing a foreground field. The artist isn’t simply depicting space, but invigorating it with a hierarchy of movements, with broad rhythms leading to, and elaborated by, telling details.
Two larger paintings here don’t achieve quite this pictorial intensity, but a number of the watercolors do, and in them the fluidity of the medium mirrors the liveliness of structure. In “Long Island Dune” (2004), a large sand bank, indicated by an area of blank paper framed by tints of sky and water, climbs fully three-fourths of the paper’s vertical dimension. It extends palpably above one’s point of view, turning the paper itself into an elastic field. In “Surfers 3” (2006), blue and gray washes establish a watery surface receding under an opalescent sky. Swaths of bare paper become trails of foam carrying and buffeting the dark, scratchy notes of surfers. While hardly revolutionary in style, these small compositions show vivid and original perceptions, finding their voices in a language of form.
Af Preben Winther, kunstavisen.dk, September 2007
Fine small exhibit – Kamilla Talbot and Michael Herstand
Both in 1927 and in 1930, Johannes Larsen travelled to Iceland to make drawings for the planned new edition of the Icelandic Sagas, which came to fill three large volumes. Kamilla Talbot, his great-granddaughter, and her husband, Michael Herstand, who both live and work in New York, travelled in the summer of 2006 in his footsteps and stayed for a month at Skriduklaustur, by the Bessastada River in Eastern Iceland to paint. In a side room at the Johannes Larsen Museum one can view a selection of their work from that trip.
Both are naturalistic landscape painters in the modernist tradition. Even so, they are very different. Kamilla Talbot’s paintings come across as coloristically ‘dry,’ holding back; a valorous painter, where pale grey-green, violet, brown-violet and ochre are predominant, as well as Italian red, ultramarine blue and off white. The paintings feel full of possibilities which never are resolved, but rumble within them as an internal force. Like a late summer day just before a thunderstorm.
In Michael Herstand’s paintings the modern lines in the landscape are more sharp, concrete. We are also closer to the motif, to the cliffs, the river, yes, we can almost hear the water. But it is foremost in color where he is quite different from his wife.
In his work, the sun has come out fully, cold and clear, and we experience yellow, orange, red, saturated green, blue-black areas and planes. Approaching an impressionistic color-play, we come close to the continuous signs of life that unfold themselves in front of the artist, and thereby the viewer, not least on the micro-plane, in the intimate.
In five horizontal woodblock prints he also shows himself to be a gifted printmaker. Here is depicts the Icelandic mountain formations with almost Japanese clarity. It is exciting enough to become acquainted with the two artists’ work, as such. But it is particularly interesting to experience how two contemporary, closely connected temperaments on the same trip can interpret the same landscape.
This comparison and contrast is the exhibition’s ‘scoop.’ Another value is a comparison between two present day landscape artists and Johannes Larsen, who, with his black and white line drawings (with Johannes V. Jensen’s vigor) interpreted both himself and the history in the Icelandic landscape.
Kunstavisen Review (Danish version):
Lille fin udstilling med Kamilla Talbot og Michael Herstand
Både i 1927 og i 1930 foretog Johannes Larsen rejser til Island for at lave tegninger til en planlagt nyudgivelse af de islandske sagaer, der kom til at fylde tre store bind. Kamilla Talbot, hans oldebarn, og hendes mand, Michael Herstand, der begge bor og arbejder i New York, rejste i sommeren 2006 i hans spor og opholdt sig i en måneds til på Skriduklaustur, ved Bessastada-floden på Østisland for at male. I en sidefløj på Johannes Larsen Museet kan man opleve et udvalg af deres værker herfra.
Begge er, hvad man må betegne som naturalistiske landskabsmalere i den modernistiske tradition. Men alligevel er de meget forskellige. Kamilla Talbot ytrer sig lidt farvemæssigt ‘tørt”, tilbageholdende; et valørmaleri, hvor sart bleg- og grågrøn, violet, brunviolet og okker er fremherskende, sammen med italienskrød, ultramarin og brækket hvid.
Billederne kan forekomme svangre med nogle muligheder, der aldrig ganske bliver forløst, men ulmer under dem som en iboende drivkraft. Som en sen sommerdag lige før en torden.
Hos Michael Herstand er de moderne linieføringer i landskabet mere huggende, kontante. Vi er også tættere på motivet, på klipperne, floden, ja, vi kan næsten høre vandet. Men det er først og fremmest i farven, at han er ganske anderledes end sin hustru.
Hos ham er solen brudt fuldt igennem, kold og klar, og vi oplever gule, orange, røde, mættet grønne, blåsorte felter og flader, og med tilnærmet impressionistisk farveleg kommer vi tæt på de ustandselige tegn på liv, der udfolder sig foran kunstneren – og hermed beskueren – ikke mindst på mikroplanet, i den lille skala, i det intime.
I fem træsnit i langformat viser han sig desuden som en benådet grafiker. Her skildrer han de islandske klippeformationer med nærmest japansk klarhed.
Det er spændende nok at stifte bekendtskab med de to kunstneres værker, bare som sådan. Men det er især interessant at opleve, hvor forskelligt to samtidige, tæt forbundne terperamenter på samme rejse kan fortolke det samme landskab.
Denne sam- og modestilling er udstillings scoop. Og endnu in åbnende vinkel: Givende er det også at sammenligne en nutids moderistiske lanskabsskildrere med datidens Johannes Larsen, der i sine sort/hvide stregtegninger med nærmest Johannes V. Jensensk nerve fortolkede både sig selv of historien ind i det islandske landskab.