Sandra Dal Poggetto: An Intercourse with Nature

By Zoe Larkins, assistant curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
Included as part of a gallery catalogue.

A published writer and skilled hunter as well as a visual artist, Sandra Dal Poggetto has written about themes in her fine art practice and hunting, often at the same time. In an essay she wrote to accompany an exhibition of her work at the Augusta College Fine Arts Center Gallery in 1996 that was subsequently published in Gray’s Sporting Journal, she notes that some of the earliest examples of what historians recog-nize as art document the act or resultant bounty of hunting. (1) “Man’s first images,” she writes, “were born from the life-giving and death-bearing intensity of the hunt.” In the essay, she traces the trajectory of depic-tions of hunting scenes and spoils from Paleolithic cave paintings to the work of early American modernist Thomas Eakins.

In describing her work, both in writing and in conversation, Dal Poggetto identifies herself with this his-tory of mark making. She explains that she was trained, in the Western tradition, to make recognizable depictions of the objects and landscapes she chose to illustrate. Notably, she studied art the University of California at Davis and then at San Francisco State University when the faculty at both institutions and other artists in the Bay Area were making figurative work counter to the expressionist and minimalist ab-stractions that dominated American postwar art.

Dal Poggetto came to abstraction on her own, after graduating. She moved to Montana from California and gradually ceased making literal renderings of landscapes, always her preferred subject, and smaller natural elements. Instead, she attempted to convey their essence with color, simple shapes, and gestures. As with many artists, or whole schools of them, who have turned away from figurative illustration, Dal Poggetto did so in an effort to more truthfully depict her subject. Ironically, Dal Poggetto associates this quintessentially modernist concept of abstraction with cities, namely New York, not the natural environment. She remem-bers visiting the postwar galleries at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and realizing that, “There was not a single thing about nature” in the paintings on view. (2) In reaction, she determined she would make abstractions founded in the natural world.

The same impulse prompted her move to Montana. Dal Poggetto deliberately chose to relocate to Helena in hopes of finding a more immediate experience of nature—an experience she intended to manifest in her work. In Montana, she has achieved and continues to find deeper communion with natural elements through hunting, a sport she learned from her husband when they lived in California. She credits hunt-ing with reawakening her girlhood interest in the natural world. For her it facilitates a singularly intimate encounter with the environment. It leads her to more remote places than she would otherwise go, she says, places she understands to be “vestiges of a fully functioning natural system.” (3)

As she has immersed herself in Montana’s wild spaces, Dal Poggetto has worked to convey her observations and sensations of the environment on canvas and paper. Dissatisfied with depicting vistas or discrete ele-ments, such as individual trees or branches, she instead aims to evoke the natural world in gestural marks. She calls the marks—particularly evident in American Fork #8 and #10 (both 2012–2013) as circles, and in Breed #7 (2012) in the form of short lines or dashes—“condensations.” Each captures, or condenses, an instance of nature, such as the feeling of the breeze on her face or the flicker of a bird’s wings.

The condensations stem from Dal Poggetto’s abandonment of linear perspective or, to use her words, the “picture window” approach to landscape in which she was trained. “Over time my experience of space shifted,” she says, “from the traditional iconic horizon to an awareness of being inside space—above me, below me and the 360 degrees around me, and it is not stationary.” Dal Poggetto discovered expression of this comprehensive immersion in the natural world in the work of American Indian artists. Unlike early modernists, who found American Indian and other various indigenous objects intriguing for their formal qualities, Dal Poggetto is less interested in the aesthetics of these objects than she is in the natural world that they are meant to portray and how their makers experienced their environment.

In her attempt to represent a deeper communion with nature, Dal Poggetto has employed nature itself, in the form of feathers and game hide, as media. She has collaged feathers onto paper, as in Breed #11 (2016) and punctured canvases with buckskin danglers, a technique evident in the American Fork paint-ings (2009–). She has also mounted rabbit and duck pelts to painted wood panels. In the works on paper and canvas, the feathers and danglers function like the “condensations.” They signify fleeting natural phe-nomena at the same time that they literally portray nature. In fact, Dal Poggetto has said that she initially intended the dash-like condensations to resemble feathers. Breed #12 exemplifies feathers’ and brush or pastel strokes’ mutual mimesis.

Significantly, the feathers and hides Dal Poggetto uses in her work come from animals that she herself hunts. She does not consider hunting to be part of her studio practice, though, however instrumental the sport is in her art making. She describes hunting as a “parallel” pursuit, and in fact does not consider it a sport but a discrete practice. That she procures the skins, feathers, and furs she uses herself imbues the works in which they appear with an authenticity that would arguably be lacking if she purchased the items or used manufactured replications of them. Dal Poggetto’s intimate comprehension of the function of feath-ers and furs in the natural environment informs her use of them. Similarly, her choice to distinguish hunt-ing from her studio practice maintains the former’s legitimacy as an exercise at which she has become an expert. It is not a performance but a pragmatic avocation.

In her use of the animals she has killed, Dal Poggetto has achieved purest abstraction with rabbit and duck pelts, as in Plain (2004) and Float #1 (2014). Compared to the pelts, the feathers and danglers she collages onto paper and canvas read as evocations of the animals and landscape from which they come. Signifiers of the creatures from which they were taken, they are, to some degree, illustrative. In the pelt works, how-ever, Dal Poggetto frankly presents naturally occurring patterns, symmetrical compositions, and textures. In doing she transcends figuration. The colors, lines, and patterns evident in the pelts demonstrate nature’s aptitude for formal composition. Well aware of this, Dal Poggetto knows that there is no need to represent what is already artfully composed.

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1) Dal Poggetto, Sandra. “Duccio in the Eye of the Hunt: Modern Connections between the Chase and Art.” Gray’s Hunting Journal October 1996: 47–49.
2) Sandra Dal Poggetto, in conversation with the author, April 7, 2016.
3) ibid.