by Mark Van Proyen
Due to decades of overuse, the term sublime can no longer be conjured without qualification. Those qualifications are many and sometimes at odds with each other, making the term almost meaningless. For example, in 1764, Immanuel Kant gave us the polar distinction between the dynamic sublime (nature) and the mathematical sublime, while Arthur Kroker, in 1995, added the technological sublime, which was said to drown and dissolve embodied beauty in an unfathomable torrent of automation, simulation and surveillance. This proliferation of overuse makes it tempting to return to Edmund Burke’s use of the word to mean the terror aroused by an unleashed nature and by things that withstand the forces of geological time. All of which brings us to another kind of the sublime — the stoic sublime — as seen in the art of Keith Hale.
In a selection of ten modestly scaled oil paintings executed between 2012 and 2022, Hale has painted images of desolate landscapes, usually featuring large rock outcroppings or massive granite boulders. These are of the type found high above the alpine tree line, where the unforgiving extremes of wind, moisture and temperature are most pronounced. Those remorseless forces, measured in eons rather than decades, give these landscapes their uncanny shape. The paintings are all monuments to their subjects’ resistance to entropy.
Hale captures the drama of that resistance in finely detailed images executed on primed linen or cotton, some nocturnal, but most set in a sharp, otherworldly twilight, evidenced in the seven most recent works in this series. They feature centrally placed cyclopean boulders that stand upright as if they were antediluvian sentinels consciously stacked by some ancient race of giants, all bathed in stark light and harsh shadow. The mottling of their surfaces is captured in excruciating detail right down to the lichens and nematodes encrusting their surfaces, reminding us that even inanimate rock formations teem with geomantic life. A good example is Problem 4 (Saturn’s Transit), depicting a conical boulder wedged upright between two smaller stones, looking like a quizzical sheep’s head minus the ears, scowling back at us. Surrounding it is a wine-dark night sky, but the rock formation is pictured in bright frontal illumination as if caught in the headlights of an approaching car.
In Problem #2, we see a boulder perched atop a pile of smaller rocks, looking like a beaked reptile with deep-set eyes. The overhead light tells us that it is high noon, although the grey-aqua background says otherwise in unusually painterly terms. No such ambiguity exists in Problem #5 (The Hole in the Sky), the only work in the series that emphasizes a bright blue sky to compliment a midday view of an upright boulder perched high atop an outcropping, looking ever so slightly like an overfed barn owl. In Problem 6 (Last light), the work’s horizontal aspect ratio reveals rocks set against a nighttime sky rendered in a deep blood red, illuminated by what appears to be a massive wildfire in the background.
It tells a climate-change story that is all too familiar to drought-stricken California, but the granite boulders pictured in the foreground are indifferent because weather conflagrations of this sort are but temporary deviations amid the march of geological time.
Looking at these works brings the term pareidolia to mind. Defined as the tendency to assign symbolic specificity to random or ambiguous forms, we often see it manifested in clouds or rock formations. We also see it in Hale’s paintings, too, but they prompt us to ask where it originates: with the viewer or the artist? The answer is both because they balance, in varying degrees, the artist’s intentions and the viewer’s predilections for seeing such things. Among other salutary attributes, Hale’s works stand as mute rebukes to the gimmicky silliness of much contemporary art, offering a counternarrative that prizes an unpretentious commitment to craft, respect for materials and the esthetics of durable austerity. They remind us of the fortitude required to sustain sanity in troubled times such as those in which we live..
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Keith Hale: “Last Light” @ Anglim/Trimble Gallery through June 25, 2022.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.