Where the sky is a wide vault of shifting color and the land stretches for miles to every horizon, the ego shrinks to its appropriate insignificance: a gnat upon the skin of the earth, vanquished with the flick of a finger. Humility is a good thing. We are only transients in infinity. The sky, the land, the water will neither mourn nor rejoice our leaving and will continue — one can only hope — long after our bones are dust. Perhaps this is why my father would stand on the highest hill surveying his farm, hands in his pockets, a serene smile on his face. Although he owned the land, he knew he could never truly possess it. This knowledge gave him comfort, for my father, who could not bring himself to believe in a god of man’s making, believed in the land, possibly made by a god. In the terror of war, he had witnessed the smallness of men. He sought — and found — faith in something bigger.
Perhaps it is faith in or fascination with something larger than human life that has for centuries drawn painters out of studios to the mountains, the prairies, the oceans white with foam. Whatever their summons, humanity reaps the gratifying benefits. Painters of landscapes are historians of the real earth: dirt and flora and rock and waters and a cloud-bleached or star-studded sky of unfathomable expanse revealed only far beyond cities and their unnatural, energy-devouring glow. The painters’ brush strokes are invaluable; rural and wilderness scenes record what is and may never be again — or serve as warnings of impending disaster. For example, landscapes painted in the early to mid-1800s by Hudson River School artists are credited with spurring the first environmental movement, consequently saving much of the Appalachian wilderness, including the Catskills, healthier now than they were a hundred years ago. Today’s landscape art bears a similar urgency: to record America’s exquisite heartlands before they are devoured by the virulent ugliness of suburban sprawl.
Keith Jacobshagen is one of today’s finest landscape artists, and his long-term focus on “flyover country” is important for its aesthetic distinction and for the message it sends to the future — a future potentially bereft of the very landscapes his paintings document. His exhibition Elapsed Time, at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, consists of eighteen oil paintings and watercolor studies bearing witness to what’s been, what’s to come, what has changed, what is changeless.
“Havelock Elevator (All Hallows Eve)” is one of two large oil paintings that might more accurately be termed “skyscapes”; by comparison, the land is just a narrow strip of color across the bottom of the canvas. The cerulean sky is animated by clouds stretching toward the viewer from what seems an impossible distance. These are not fluffy white clouds but moisture-bearing stratus, their gray threat lit pink by dusk. Darkness is descending; perhaps also a storm. Yet far below, the flat Midwestern plains are remote and placid. Tiny lights speckle the land, the only sign of civilization except for grain elevators that here and there interrupt the flatness of the horizon line. The verdant fields are scattered with fat trees that appear as solid as rocks — or pebbles, for they are smaller than an infant’s thumbnail. At the bottom edge of the canvas, a thin band of brown implies a field plowed under, the harvest over, winter approaching.
Unlike most landscape photography, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get technology of which limits poetic license, painting can capture the truth of a landscape beyond its mere visual image. The countryside is not just the color and line but also the scent of hay, the crunch of frozen earth, the soft caress or cold slap of wind on skin. These are parts of the artist’s and viewer’s experiences, too.
“I have always felt that all of the senses play a large part in my work,” Jacobshagen says. “I believe there is a great deal of information that is not explicit in the visual material, so I add a little more in the titles and narratives.”
The title “Partially Frozen Irrigation Ditch, Hwy 63” adds another layer of meaning to a small oil-on-paper depicting a lone tree stump at dead center, surrounded by shoots of dry winter grass and weeds. Beyond them metal-gray snow and ice cover the earth. And above it all is a winter sky just before sunset — again, gray lit with pink — but there’s a spot of bright blue in the middle, heralding spring. The narrative inscribed in the lower left corner, on a patch of rusty soil, adds yet another layer beneath the title: “Platte Valley 3-2-01 — 39° — 3:36-6:30 PM. Moaning Coal Train to South — K. Jacobshagen.”
It’s interesting that although Jacobshagen works on-site, creating lovely field notes in watercolor and pencil, his oil paintings are created entirely in the studio, away from nature.
“I believe in the rich patina and imagination of memory,” says Jacobshagen. Experiencing the full range of senses while in the landscape provides him “a rich milieu that informs those little studies.” And the studies, in turn, inform the oils—along with the emotional residue evoked by the place. “After my first emotional response to what is before me,” he adds, “my interest is, always and above all, the formal concerns of picture making. I believe that if I were searching for some symbolic meaning in the work, I would miss what is truly interesting about the landscape: its form, light and space.” Certainly he captures those formal aspects of rural America, and in a way that transports the viewer both in body and spirit. The uncharacteristically but appropriately dark painting “Sept. 11, 2001 7:45 A.M. 76°,” with its earth washed in blackness, indigo sky full of violent clouds and contrails like flak smoke and scream of orange just above the horizon, conveys the message of inevitable destruction.
But the undercurrent in much of this work seems to be the melancholic waning of years, the waning of place. Nearly all the oils contain crepuscular skies, with gray clouds converging at a single darker point above the horizon. Two narratives reference the artist’s age: ” … Winds out of the North. 60 years old today … ” and ” … K. Jacobshagen. (60 yrs old) … ” And the small oil “Crows and Microwave Tower” testifies to encroaching technology with the spire of the microwave like a splinter puncturing the landscape. It’s easy — and dismal — to imagine the invasive suburbs just out of view.
“Like most people who care about the landscape,” says Jacobshagen, “I am concerned about the destruction of agricultural land; however, we live in a country that places economic priorities above all else. So when the land has greater value as housing than it does for food and spiritual sustenance, the land will be given over to what is seen as the greater investment.”
Since 1970 the United States has lost approximately one million acres of farmland a year to suburban development. That’s more than 114 acres an hour, every day of every year.
“In the past few years,” says the artist, “I’ve watched many places where I’ve made paintings and drawings disappear, to be replaced by suburban sprawl and shopping malls. And yes, the irony of destroying wetland and then naming it ‘Pond Meadows Estates’ is not lost on me.”
The startling beauty Jacobshagen creates out of the diminishing Great Plains will serve either as a call to preservation or a record of loss.