“May we at times turn from the ordinary pursuits of life to the pure enjoyment of rural nature,” wrote Thomas Cole in 1836. Cole, who founded the Hudson River School of painting, a mid-19th century art movement in Upstate New York, was deeply inspired by the region’s sublime beauty, and the American landscape at large.
In a new show, Trailheads and Transmutations, at Davis Gallery in Austin, Felice House and Dana Younger have embodied something of Cole’s philosophical premise in their own work. As the title implies, new paths lead to new ways of connecting, and at a time of ever-evolving uncertainty in humanity, art can offer a connection to nature. House, a painter, and Younger, a sculptor, have sourced scenes from far West Texas and beyond in this most recent collaboration, which can be described as intentionally gentle in its aesthetic.
House’s landscapes, most of which depict views of Big Bend State Park (a few from the National Park, too), boast of reds and golds more akin to a New England autumn than the Chihuahuan Desert. Yuccas and cacti, awash in deep desert light, sing in a chorus among the vast openness. When first visiting Big Bend State Park some years ago, she observed how the desert’s wild, devouring landscape and starry, sequined sky instilled a sense of smallness in the midst of something much larger. Having grown up in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, not far from the area where Thomas Cole once lived and painted, House found a kind of freedom when moving to Texas, especially in the sprawling West Texas terrain.
“The Hudson River School is about American spirituality being integral with nature,” she notes. “I wanted to connect that Texas freedom with this concept — and imbue the desert, which is very dry and neutral, with color and life.”
The pandemic allowed House to reflect on the beauty of both places, as distal as these two places are. As COVID wore on, the artist found herself moving away from the female portraiture she is known for, and instead focusing on nature. Issues around loss and grief also arose at this time, which furthered a shift both personally and within her practice: “There was a dismantling of a lot of expectations of how things were,” she recalls. “From there, what road do you take?”
Younger also found himself taking time to reflect, and in doing so, moved away from the human figure as well, channeling nature through sculpture. In his own practice, he employs 3D scanning and printing technology to produce digitally rendered wood objects, as well as resin pieces: “Everything I do is about the intersection of art and technology. That is where I live and where my work lives.”
His work in Trailheads and Transmutations is both a response to his wife’s paintings and a contemplation of quiet moments in the natural world. A sycamore leaf, for instance, turned into a sculpture made from local spalted sycamore; a bird’s nest is transformed into a blue-gray form made of resin. “Sometimes we have to look more closely in order to appreciate the beauty,” he offers. “And I can scan these things in the world as I was walk around.”
What used to be a 12-hour process now takes all of two minutes, Younger tells me, thanks to scanning apps that can be downloaded to your phone. (He also enjoys accessing 3D models from open-source sites online.) The input-output effort of his practice — uploading scanned objects to a computer program, then printing them using either CNC machining for wood or DLP printing resin — is an intersectional happy place for the nature-enthusiast slash self-confessed scan head.
Throughout the show, Younger’s migratory birds and animal skulls, which are all made of wood, are paired with colorful resin-based succulents and cacti that add flavor to the overall theme. Younger, who is the Exhibits Manager for Texas Parks and Wildlife, has a clear affinity for the state’s natural wonders. The desert is of particular interest; he notes that with each perfectly placed form adorning its wide open landscape, it acts a bit like a museum.
“Sometimes in the desert we see just a plant, and there’s space around it that really allows you to admire the shape of this beautiful thing.”
Amid the clamor of these past few years, House and Younger have managed to carve out a bit of space for simple admiration in these paintings and sculptures. The noise keeps coming as nature continues its steady course. Trailheads and Transmutations is a gentle reminder that we are only here for a moment — may we at times turn from the ordinary pursuits of life, as Thomas Cole once mused, and find beauty in that moment.
Trailheads and Transmutations runs from August 6 to September 3, 2022 at Davis Gallery in Austin.