His landscapes work within the most traditional confines of the genre, placing emphasis on the physical qualities of the scene, and draw upon the historical antecedents of the French Impressionists thick application of brushstrokes and use of brilliant color as well as Chinese landscape artist’s use of perspective. Yet, Thiebaud challenges the boundaries he also works within – reimagining the landscape genre with his unique combination of bold perspective and brushstrokes that arduously circumvent the allegorical, triumphal, or moralizing stances within the traditional canon of landscape painting. His painted vision neither romanticizes nature nor despairs the anxiety and alienation present in the modern world. Instead, they embody and expand upon an underlying theme that connects his extensive and varied oeuvre together: imagery as a forum of formal investigation based on the three interconnected elements of observation, recollection and imagination. Thiebaud explains, “I’m not just interested in the pictorial aspects of the landscape – see a pretty place and try to paint it – but in some way to manage it, manipulate it, or see what I can turn it into” (Gail Gordon, Thiebaud Puts a Visual Feast on Canvas, California Aggie, University of California, Davis 1983, p.2).
In Cloud and Bluffs, Thiebaud perfectly unites representational and abstract forms within a single picture, capturing the mood of the landscape within an improbable composition. Cloud and Bluffs is at once an actual representation and a figment of his imagination – transforming space into pictorial artifice through a reduction to pure forms. Representing a large landmass positioned to one side, predominantly dark forms are set against a pale background creating a glowing, impressionistic atmosphere. The thick brushwork used to create the mass glistens, luxuriously depicting the bluffs in a manner that resembles layers of chocolate frosting covering a cake. Like in Thiebaud’s still lifes where the glossy impastos concurrently channel the swirls of confectionery and the dizzying capacity of paint, his landscapes analogously are comprised of expressive streaks of color that capture the beauty and the drama of the surrounding world. The brushstrokes become representational markings while maintaining their status as pure strokes of pigment. The geometric planes of color in Cloud and Bluffs, layered in contrasting and related hues, simultaneously create depth and flatness, evoking a sense of three dimensionality while maintaining the tactile quality of the canvas in his heavily applied paint.
Thiebaud was distinctly interested in confusing the reading of space in his landscapes. “Landscape for me took on the problem of composition,” he remarked. “I wanted to eliminate the horizon line, to see if I could get a landscape image that didn’t use a horizontal fixation. Instead, I try to establish a positional directive for the viewer – whether it’s up, down, helicopter view, world view, valley view – to try and get some sense of the loss of the convenience or comfort of standing and looking at things, to throw people off a bit” (Gail Gordon, Thiebaud Puts a Visual Feast on Canvas, California Aggie, University of California, Davis 1983, p.2). Playing with equilibrium and dislocation, Thiebaud’s landscapes meld conflicting viewpoints into a cohesive whole. Asked to define his theories on “integrating several projective systems into one,” Thiebaud explained: “A single point perspective, where you look at a railroad track, that’s one system… Cézanne’s paintings have eight or nine perspectives, various views of the same still life viewed from several angles and trying to incorporate that into one. Chinese perspective – which is the opposite of one-point perspective – where instead of the railroad tracks vanishing, they’re coming into you.” (The artist cited in an interview with the Academy of Achievement, May 27, 2011) The heightened foreshortening of the bottom of the bluffs, the geometric pillars of color tilted to recede into the back of the canvas, and the white highlight on the top right of the sun on first glance seem to situate the viewer of Cloud and Bluffs in a comfortable vantage point at the bottom of the hills. Yet, the tops of the bluffs remain visible and the geometric lines of color improperly recede into the distance, collapsing the viewer’s sense of depth. This subtle manipulation of physical space lies at the core of avant-garde abstraction. From the work of Cézanne and Matisse to his contemporary, Richard Diebenkorn, Thiebaud inherited the challenge of merging spatial illusion with the exploration of the tactile painterly surface.
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