ADRIAN DECKBAR: A NEW NATURALISM
By Peter Frank
Long a painter of figures, Adrian Deckbar turned toward the landscape several years ago and hasn’t looked back. Landscape elements always enlivened Deckbar’s figural renditions, but, in the wake of America’s burgeoning ecological sensitivity, she realized that nature by itself was subject enough. This was clearly a personal rather than historical revelation: the landscape per se has preoccupied painters for at least four hundred years, and by concerning herself with forms of vegetation, bodies of water, expanses of sky, and light itself, Deckbar falls in with the likes of Rembrandt, Constable, and Cezanne – not to mention Church, Burchfield, and myriad other painters of the American landscape. Indeed, painting the landscape is as American as an apple orchard. What is remarkable is how Deckbar paints the landscape – and the kinds of landscape Deckbar paints.
A native of New Orleans and resident in southern Louisiana for most of her life – with a notable few years spent in the San Francisco Bay Area – Deckbar has always been surrounded by dramatic vistas and distinctive vegetation. The urban centers of southern Louisiana fit themselves to a flat, lush prospect, and their surroundings meld quickly into that shimmering terrain, giving a rural feel to even the most banal suburbs. This is as much a cultural as a topographical condition; the same thing could happen throughout southern Florida, for example, but does so only fitfully. In Louisiana, the agricultural connection to the land retains its strong narrative tradition of her region without recourse to its traditional sentimentality. Instead, Deckbar regarded her subjects, figure and landscape alike, with the stark opticality of a new American realism, forthright in its presentation but strenuously devoid of affect.
In suppressing visual as well as subjective nuance, however, Deckbar found that she could not ultimately divest her pictures of sentiment per se – and that, in fact, her own sentiments, including emotional attachments to her sitters and, even more, to the natural environment, were driving her choice of as well as approach to her subject matter. “I was not only attempting to paint their forms,” Deckbar has written about her subjects, “but something about their being, their existence.” In 2003, she continues, “I had an epiphany. One day while painting, I began to recognize that my use of the figure as a vehicle for what I wanted to say about my experience on this planet was simply not enough. I began to feel compelled by what was outside the window, wanting to go as far away from the people, buildings and windows as possible.” The alienation implicit in the photo-realist approach had fallen away in Deckbar’s regard, leaving her with the need to embrace rather than simply analyze what she saw – to manifest a connection with the world rather than a distance from it.
This did not mean abandoning the technical gifts she had cultivated for decades, but modifying them, softening their edges, broadening their appearance, without losing their precision. Deckbar now allowed herself to work with a somewhat fleshier brushstroke and, even more importantly, to emphasize the emotional
qualities of light. By opening up her technique – not all that far, but just far enough – she transited from a reportorial approach to an evocative one. Deckbar was now emulating not how the camera sees the world, but how humans see it.
She was also emulating how great landscape painters have dealt with their chosen subject throughout the history of picture-making, finding in the rendition of space the magic of the ineffable. Light has always been the key here, whether painted by Ruysdael, by Friedrich, by Monet, or by Hopper; but the relationship of objects such as trees, clouds, and bodies of water to the overall view – that is, as compositional as well as subjective elements – comprises the affective drama here, a drama that light sets in motion. In its muted lushness, Deckbar’s recently adopted approach now inheres rather than depicts luminosity, as if she were not only painting light but painting with light.
In this respect, Deckbar has re-found not only her connection to her subjects, but her connection to art history. The photo-realist regard for earlier representational painting was ironic and conflicted, reluctant to admit to (much less build upon) its own admiration for the realist painting that had preceded it. But the best photo-realists were, at heart, profoundly historical in their motivation, struggling with the implications of photography on the way we look at things – including the way we look at paintings. Deckbar had struggled, and finally found that, for her own sensibility, the poetics of visual observation are interpretive, not objective, and demand a nuanced intervention.
Finally, then, Adrian Deckbar has re-found and re-cast herself as an impressionist, in the broadest, most expressive sense of the word. Her world works on her soul – and ours – through her eyes, always promising another small, delicious revelation that at once reifies the endurance (however delicate) of nature and renews her (and our) connection to natural phenomena. Deckbar’s art finds its place in the grand tradition of realism and naturalism because, like all great realists and naturalists, it celebrates not realism, but the real – not naturalism, but nature.