By Barbara Morris
"There's something about the sky," says Carole Pierce, "that really defines the environment." Pierce's fascination dates to her childhood in Texas, where the sky loomed large and she become mesmerized with its ever-changing spectacle of moods and color. "The unpredictable magnificence of light and change that exists around us constantly...I never tire of it." Her father, a pilot, was always obsessive about the weather - when it was good, he would often invite her up flying with him, providing her with a bird's-eye view of Dallas.
While earlier works depicted a bucolic, invented landscape featuring trees or mountains, in Pierce's latest exhibition "Sky, Land & Water" at Seager Grey Gallery these referents are notably absent, the viewer instead immersed in a realm of pure atmosphere. From a blazing yellow canvas, Twilight Arch, Saffron Sky (2014), with cadmium and lemon yellows taken "from that one tiny blinding point of light behind the horizon" forming subtle shapes like status clouds, to the cool and muted grays - grays with flickers of blue, or pink - of Silver Cloud (2014), Pierce offers much to engage us in her atmospheric vistas.
Pierce, who attended graduate school at California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) in Oakland, where she focused on printmaking, received a MFA with Highest Distinction. Charles Gill, then chair of printmaking, was a big influence and Pierce also did an independent study with Cal professor Minimalist painter David Simpson, who also helped form her aesthetic. She also feels a strong kinship with the Hudson River School, painters such a Thomas Cole, who celebrated the majesty of the natural world surrounding them, with its echoes of sublime, and particularly with the work of Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, whose breathtaking landscapes also, as Pierce puts it, “have a quality of something that’s not quite right, that’s just a little bit off…"
While grounded in art history, Pierce’s work displays as well a contemporary edge — with its impulse to Minimalism and a seriality that relates to modernism and post-modernism. Many of the works on view in fact form diptychs, or triptychs. Ocean Sky 1 (2015) offers a stirring vision of cumulus clouds in the misty veils of off-white, blue and gray, hovering above a rippling turquoise sea, while Ocean Sky 2 (2015) revisits the them in warm hues, peach, mustard yellow, or ocher, glowing as if lit at dusk.
Dark Beauty (2014) portrays a sunset dividing the canvas in horizontal bands of color, dusky warm cloud layers separating a sky in modulated hues of blue. One may wonder about the intense dark area banding the bottom of the canvas, beneath a bright stripe an unexpected shade of coral: a demarcation of horizon, is this where sky meets land, or is it sea? This ambiguity of identity, the indeterminate density, fascinates the artist, returning to the theme time and again. Paring down landscape to its bare essentials, many works even relinquishing the grounding device for a horizon line, allows the viewer to float free in an atmospheric space. Some, such as Mist (2015), become in effect color field paintings, recalling the work of Mark Rothko, or David Simpson, with, as Pierce reveals “eight or nine layers of colors…blues, yellows, several pinks…a metallic gold” merging optically to create its shimmering gray surface. She explains this new direction happening quite unexpectedly, that “it just appeared."
Her “High Desert Fire” series relates to her experiences driving through the beautiful for desolate expanses on road trips to New Mexico. Beauty laced with discord, or melancholy, is a recurring theme. Pierce’s work as a whole, in fact, is under-girded with a solemn feeling of the loss of innocence in nature, the stain of pollution with which man has tarnished his environment, although it remains spectacular and awe-inspiring. In High Desert Fire 3 (2015), a flickering line of cadmium orange blazes a trail across the horizon; here the sky, a rosy hue hugging the earth, becomes a dusky gray, blending into creamy off-whites through which a patch of clear eggshell-blue is reveled in the distance. High Desert Fire 2 (2015) appears more angry and menacing as veils of smoky browns, burnt siennas and umbers, choke the sky. “In the way of the sublime, it’s the beauty in the terror of it…” reflects Pierce. The dramatic, moody and volatile skies of J.M.W. Turner have clearly served as an inspiration as well.
In addition to the the larger works, Pierce presents a number of smaller studies. The gestural sketches employ thicker, more vigorous brushwork, and bold vibrant colors contrasting with the modulated tones of the more generously scaled works. These vivid pieces again take their hues from nature. Elements Deep Water (2014) a pair of sapphire-like hues of ultramarine blue, while Elements: Sky Earth (2014) plays two blue-violent works against a third ranging from lime green to a viridian, scraped across a sky blue.
Landscape painting, as a genre, may be viewed as adhering to an aesthetic that evokes an earlier era, yet for those with the ability to approach the subject from unexpected angles, with fresh eyes, it remains current. With its meditative aspect, “Sky, Land & Water” takes Pierce’s work in a more reductive direction, continuing to present distillations of the landscape, with their dramatic range of moods and temperatures, a rich variety of emotionally and visually evocative images offering a window on her carefully observed world.