Tensions, Paradoxes And Impurities: The Truth Of The Matter

By Mark Stevens
From the catalog accompanying Sandra Dal Poggetto’s solo exhibition, In Situ, mounted by the Yellowstone Art Museum, Billings, MT, in 2002-2003.

For any thoughtful painter, the landscape of the American West is a hauntingly difficult subject. Its visual scale cannot be captured in a rectangle. And its metaphysical character, suffused by the visionary dreams of the historical West, stretches beyond ordinary frames of reference. Earlier artists who addressed the subject—notably members of the Hudson River School and mystic modernists like O’Keeffe—had the advantage of depicting what was at least a new-seeming world. They could therefore yield to rapturous dreams, ranging from Edenic innocence to a mystical union with nature. But today’s serious artists face an older, more complicated landscape crowded with many different intertwined feelings and implications. If the American West can still represent paradise and the hope for a deeper connection to the natural world, these aspirations have also aged into beautiful artifacts. Energetic debunkers regularly unearth information that makes it hard to idealize even the early West of the Indians or the first settlers. (Ignorance truly is bliss.) And people with a tourist’s-eye perspective now swarm like busy Lilliputians over the grand country, collecting epiphanies and framing the landscape in “picture windows.”

Sandra Dal Poggetto is a lyrical but austere painter who has struggled for years to find a satisfactory measure for this landscape. While unwilling to abandon the enlarging dreams of the West, she has also remained fully conscious of its contemporary character. She has insisted, moreover, upon being a painter of her time rather than one who adopts earlier painting styles or “looks.” In her recent feather paintings, Dal Poggetto has created pictures that, while not descriptions of the mountains and plains around her, are redolent of their character. “Redolent” is a word that suggests a kind of steeped-in smell, like blankets that have lain a while in a barn. Her pictures are a kind of layering of the many moods that now infuse the West. Their foundation—the blanket at the bottom of the pile—is her determination not to depict the landscape she loves as merely something apart, outside, or beyond herself. Or, to put it differently, she seems driven to implicate herself in the landscape. And so she has essentially begun at the beginning, with the tribal art of the American West. An Indian made literal use of nature—bones, hides, plants and so on—to eat and make art. An Indian did not own a view, but was instead owned by the view and he or she hunted in order to survive in the natural world. Dal Poggetto has done something related but not the same, founding each painting upon a feather from a wild bird that she herself has killed.

She was first inspired to work with feathers—actual feathers—after seeing pre-Columbian art from Peru at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She liked the way the Peruvians worked with the feathers, cutting and altering them to a geometric design rather than, she said, “just sticking feathers onto something.” Seeing feathers used in this way touched something in her, for her husband, the writer and environmentalist Brian Kahn, had introduced her to serious bird hunting in Montana, and she was then trying to come to terms with hunting wildlife in the landscape. It became important to Dal Poggetto to experience the landscape in this visceral, physically demanding way. She killed nothing that she herself would not gut and eat, and she came to understand that one dishonored nature—and those who historically lived with its unforgiving dictates—by regarding it as a sentimental garden. Of course, she never supposed that her hunting could in any way replicate native experience of the landscape. She remained another immigrant with longings. But hunting could assume the disciplined quality of ritual; and ritual itself, of course, was a way to honor original feeling.

Dal Poggetto began to use the feathers—pheasant, sage grouse, goose—in her paintings. She was attracted to the idea of organizing them into a grid, a geometric form that itself has an almost incantatory power over the modern imagination. In that way the archaic could meet the modern in her work; indeed, both the archaic and the modern shared a fascination with magical geometry. But it would be the feather, she decided—and by implication the landscape itself—that would control her contemporary grid. “I didn’t like the idea of imposing the grid on the feather,” she said. “So I reversed it. The feather imposes the structure upon the painting. The feather dictates the organization of the space. The feather is an uncompromising structure, so the painting is determined by its shape.” The feathers themselves were already full of internal grids, lyrical geometric forms and repeating patterns. (Few things in this world have the beautiful rigor of a pheasant feather.) But they were not strict rectangles, so Dal Poggetto organized the shapes in her grids to reflect their various idiosyncratic forms.

As a result, there is nothing mechanical about her grid. Sometimes there is no feather where a pattern suggests there could be one. Sometimes a color does not repeat. The whites suffusing most of her grids contain many shadows, ripplings, and half-seen shapes. It becomes clear, the more one looks at her pictures, that her whispering grid is also evoking the landscape of the West. The great plains are also planes, after all, with long ruled lines and powerful horizontal thrusts. And, like Dal Poggetto’s grids, the ancient geometry of the West never appears machine-made. The artist’s actual surfaces also have an earthy character; she likes the uneven charcoal line against the rough weave of the canvas. Although her colors often had a natural look in her earlier paintings, in these feather pictures she has used a stronger, more bold palette— in part, because the colors of the feathers themselves are so powerful that they wash out lighter tones. There is no black as rich as a goose feather’s for example, even as it shades toward gray near the line of its spine. Dal Poggetto used a strong red to offset the goose-black. The two colors together, red and black, evoke ancient and tribal art. Dal Poggetto’s smaller feather paintings are more physical in feeling than her larger ones. As she increases the scale in her art, the paintings become somewhat more conceptual, much as the landscape becomes more abstract when one lifts one’s eyes from a close examination of the nearby. Still, in contrast to many modern painters who have worked with grid-like forms—such as Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin— Dal Poggetto does not bring the rarefied spirit of the transcendent into her work. In even her large paintings, the intractable reality of the feathers has a way of holding the work to the actual. Dal Poggetto is a toes-in-the-dirt painter who must have something rooted in her art, however light or airy it might otherwise appear. The most visceral of her pictures are the small, so-called “pelt” paintings, which are made from the shimmering, often iridescent neck or back feathers of birds. A dark image of a few rectangular pelts could almost be a tiny Rothko, except for the extraordinary pungency of its surface and color. Here, nature erupts into the picture as if to save art from the detachment of store-bought paint.

If Dal Poggetto’s art does not seek out the transcendent, neither does it aspire to some pure or innocent relation to nature. Instead, she builds here paintings around tensions, paradoxes, and impurities—a truthful reflection of our culture’s complex relation to the landscape of the West. The feathers themselves symbolize contrary things. They recall Indian art, of course, yet serve to ground the art. They can represent movement and stillness, life and also death. They are part memorial, part resurrection. Dal Poggetto has long been interested in egg tempera, an ancient medium whose name evokes birth and new beginnings. (It seems fitting that she has brought feathers to the egg.) She likes to mix mediums, including in any one image egg tempera, oil paint, feathers, and charcoal, appreciating how their varied characters establish a lively visual tension. No doubt she would like a more complete or pure union with the landscape, but a partial redress of the usual alienations is surprise enough—for it conveys the truth of the matter. Dal Poggetto’s paintings embody the vivid, close relation to the landscape of the American West that we can attain. They step past the picture window.

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Also appeared in Drumlummon Views: Fall 2006 – Winter 2007