DOLORES JUSTUS: A PASSION FOR NATURE - ESSAY BY JONATHAN GOODMAN

 "The Universe at Our Feet" by Dolores Justus (c) 2004

"The Universe at Our Feet" by Dolores Justus (c) 2004

Dolores Justus’s affection for nature--in particular, the beauty of landscape’s long view--is durable and lasting. It is difficult to concentrate on such a subject now, in the face of art whose ironic provocations and intellectual conceptualizations have received so much attention; craft and skill sometimes seem to have been lost in the face of a stylized, overly self-aware presentation of images. Justus, to her credit, is looking for something else: namely, a transcendent identification with the attributes of nature, culminating in a self-denial that yields to the fascination of the land. Working from both sketches and photos, Justus creates paintings that lie between abstraction and recognizable form; her favorite artists, such as Andrew Wyeth, create with a sparseness that informs her own compositions; also, like the Impressionists, she aims to convey a feeling as much as a form. Everything in her work is based upon nature, but some of the landscapes with loosely rendered elements can seem to align themselves with a kind of gestural abstraction, whose subtly composed gestalt relates to more recent advances in art as well as the grand tradition of landscape.

In conversation, Justus remarks, “I love the process.” While she sees the act of painting as a solitary exercise, she is interested in communicating not only with nature but with a cultivated art audience (she has exhibited for more than 10 years). Deeply interested in capturing the essential elements of nature, Justus focuses on rivers and stones, hills and streams inspired by places she knows well: the coast of Oregon and Maine. Her love of structure and detail is evident in The Universe at Our Feet (2004), a wonderfully evocative painting of coastal rocks and low water, with a low hill in the background. The stones in the foreground loom up and capture our interest, while Justus also carefully renders the middle and long distance with a feeling for atmospheric realism. The painting is an image of structural complexity and feeling for form that belies the seeming simplicity of the composition; it relates a reality based upon the natural world but at the same time communicates an interest in the way a work of nature can border on the abstract in the intensity of the artist’s gaze.

Justus is consistent with her interest in the the melding of natural forms and abstract values. Many of her paintings render what she calls the “truth” of nature--indeed, one of her exhibitions was titled “Truth and Finding: Landscape Conversations.” The idea that a kind of truth can be seen in the landscape, a truth whose dimensions border on moral recognition, is central to the artist’s esthetic. In a painting like Knowing (2003), a small work that carries the impact of a much larger composition, meadows are painted an olive green, divided by thick black lines. The sky is rendered in a glowing gray, off white. Here is an example of Justus’s looseness bordering on abstraction; the painting is literally and metaphorically a collection of color fields, whose sensuous beauty Justus has worked hard to convey. In another rough version of nature, Contemplation (2002) consists of fields and foliage painted darker and lighter greens; the sky, nearly half of the painting, is a luminescent gray. Forms are simply blocked; the foliage is not rendered in detail but rather as a patch of color, lending it to a meditational review of the way nature works upon us.

It is a pleasure to see these works of art, whose attributes are skillfully handled with both the specific effect and big picture in mind. Justus’s accessibility does not hinder her in being true to herself even as she speaks to a large audience. In another coastal painting, Rocky Passage (2003), rocks loom up and make their way directly into the water, speaking to a perception that borders on reverence for nature. Justus is an artist whose claims on the landscape are powerfully united with a determination to get it right, to stand on craft. She offers us not only the natural world but also the strength of her own perception, with the result that we inevitably gravitate toward the weight and considered space of her paintings.

- Jonathan Goodman (2005)

Jonathan Goodman is an art writer and critic based in New York who has written about art for a variety of arts publications including "Art in America," "Sculpture," and many others. He has also taught art writing skills at Pratt Institute as an Associate Professor since 1998.