Mountains and oceans are favorite subjects in the arts. As far as I can tell, this is solely because they are really, really big. Unless you are an astronaut, mountains and oceans are the largest things on which you will ever lay eyes.
Depicting them in an image or referring to them in verse can invoke ideas of existentialism, insurmountability, transcendentalism or just plain awe. They are often referred to as proving grounds for lovers—climbing, crossing and, presumably, sweating being analogous to devotion. They even enjoy common usage that is consistently hyperbolic, as in a mountain of debt or a sea of tourists. It seems we have agreed as a species that mountains and oceans are the most beautiful, most direct way to say “lots and lots.”
So I found it strange that Bernd Haussmann’s paintings of mountains and oceans are not only small, but also devoid of discernible labor.
The show’s succinct title, Mountains & Oceans, matches the succinct manner in which the artist renders his subjects. When I think of mountains or oceans, I think of endless space, a place into which one could disappear forever; they contain endless detail and complex terrain that could swallow one whole. Haussmann’s paintings, which employ neither their subjects’ scale nor complexity, reduce the world to crude abstractions.
The works, each roughly the size of a sheet of paper, are typically comprised of no more than a few shapes, often of a single color. The colors, of which almost none can be found in nature, are applied in thin, wet stains. Individual brushstrokes are rare; the liquidity of the paint bleeds into a featureless flatness. In some cases, the artist builds the opacity up, depicting the crests and planes as a solid form. But it is far more common to see the warp and weft of the canvas peek through like white Benday dots.
In using so little paint, the canvas itself acts as the tinting agent; it provides fluctuations in tone when the paint flow fades from heavy to light. Couple this with the scarcity of marks, and the images appear as little more than faint bands of color.
Haussmann’s approach calls to mind modernist painters such as Brice Marden or Morris Louis, but Haussmann’s stubborn reliance on subject matter takes the work out of the realm of mere paint for paint’s sake, a fact that is particularly bothersome since it seems unlikely the artist actually looked at nature while he painted. One image, “#1882 untitled (Mountains & Oceans),” is no more than a boomerang shape, the color of Grimace, which floats midway between the top and bottom edges of the canvas. It likely wouldn’t read as a mountain on its own and, in the context of the other work, it seems like the artist wasn’t feeling very emotive that day. Seriously, it probably took him longer to write the title than to complete the painting.
As to that title, am I to infer Haussmann has completed at least 1,881 other paintings in this series? If so, I might have aimed for quantity in the show. Gebert Contemporary is a fairly cavernous space, and the works are certainly not enhanced by the Spartan arrangement.
This is not to say Haussmann doesn’t do some nice things with the medium. Some of the images are seductive in their craft: The marks of wet-on-wet oils diffuse into crystalline edges that no hand could repeat. But the forms are repetitive, predictably rhythmic with no crescendo.
Considering the awe-inspiring inspiration for these works, the viewer is given very little to look at. Despite dozens of attempts, Haussmann’s mountains show little range.
Mountains & Oceans
Through Dec. 26
Gebert Contemporary at the Railyard
544 S. Guadalupe St.