To describe Seattle painter Fred Holcomb’s work as “drive-by art” makes it sound like something gimmicky or cheesy. But even the quickest survey of “Landscape Paintings,” his new show at Linda Hodges Gallery, makes clear his oils on canvas are subtle and sublime.
In his artist’s statement, Holcomb explains that his paintings are “generated from a lifetime of road trips.” Many of them, he adds, conjure scenes of the rural West passed “at freeway speed.”
Others, while exquisitely done, are more traditional. In “Beach,” “Green Lake with Duck Island” and “Outlet” (a panoramic view of a river estuary), it is nature that’s in motion. Holcomb, here, views big skies, wide expanses and quiet ripple effects from a calm, fixed vantage point.
But his breakthrough work finds him on the move.
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“Trailer Park,” a prime example, is all about velocity. Everything in the foreground — roadside weeds, railroad embankment, lines of fir trees — is blurred by speed. The trailer park of the title is a tad more in focus. But only the more distant firs and a far-off mountain-ridge have any definition to them. Speed translates the scene’s verticals into a blurred and streaky horizontal energy. Here and elsewhere, Holcomb reveals how “reality” can change depending on the way you move through it.
“Eastbound,” depicting a more open landscape, reads like sedimentary layers of velocity-derived perception. Roadbed and median form a blurry base. The westbound highway lane is slightly firmer. The ridgeline on the horizon is positively crisp. It’s as though solid reality rests on foundations of quivering Jell-O.
In “Refinery Through Trees,” Holcomb juggles two landscapes in one, with the leafy foreground becoming a frustrating green smear that obscures the clearer view of a coastline and near-invisible refinery behind it.
In the four most fascinating paintings in the show, Holcombe portrays sights he sees not with his eyes but in his mind. However plausible they seem at first glance, they’re visual impossibilities.
“Standout” is the most obvious. In its foreground, a lofty fir rises almost to the top of the canvas. Though rendered with impressionist strokes rather than photorealist fastidiousness, it has no momentum implicit in it. Instead, its backdrop is in high-velocity blur: an abstraction of greenery, water and sky rushing behind this firmly rooted “standout” at warp speed.
In “Summit,” canyon walls seem all but melted by the viewer’s velocity, while dark firs loom at a motionless angle in the foreground. In “Upstart,” a contrast in colors plays as much of a role as stillness-versus-speed, as a bright green fir sapling shines out from beneath darker, blurrier trees.
Similar in spirit but different in content is Holcomb’s shoreline scene, “Pilings.” It’s a sight familiar to anyone who has strolled along the shores of Puget Sound: tidy rows of vertical logs pounded into the bed of the Sound, most likely to support docks or piers that long ago vanished.
It takes a moment, though, to register what’s “wrong” with them. Their water reflections have been placed on top of the logs, instead of from the base where the tides lap at the wood. The result: a ghostly anti-gravitational effect that’s hard to explain at first.
With “Standout,” “Summit,” “Upstart” and “Pilings,” Holcomb is entering beguiling new territory: landscapes of the mind, concocted from landscapes faithfully observed.
Let’s hope he keeps going there.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org