Far from her roots nestled in the central California valley, Natalie Wadlington makes her institutional debut at Dallas Contemporary with the solo exhibition Places that Grow. The show displays precise narrative paintings of childhood excursions on enormous, vibrant canvases. Set in highly domesticated spaces, the scenes lean heavily on the atmosphere of youthful wonder and innate care for the Earth, all set upon backdrops of dramatic Texas skies.
The show features a new series of paintings that utilize various elements of the outdoors that are often overlooked and under examined in adulthood. From dusk to dawn, characters crouch to inspect and save insects, such as bees clung to the water’s surface in Pool in Fall (2022), asserting the environmental undertones of the show. Wadlington underscores the importance of curiosity, which innately fosters protection for Mother Earth.
With a consoling human presence and themes of rejuvenation, Wadlington’s paintings soften the harsh realities of environmental destruction and encourage nourishment. Repeated depictions of water are found throughout the exhibit, most notably in End of Summer (2022)and Front Yard in Sunset (2022). The artist paints saturated, striated hues reflecting setting suns into water puddles and pools, contrasting drab, often man-made foregrounds of pavement, mowed grass, and in one case, a sprawling white plastic chair.
In Front Yard in Sunset (2022), Wadlington fills two 84 x 84-inch panels, balancing the end of day and the edge of night. She captures resistance to the tiredness and exhaustion at a day’s end in vibrant hues. Fiery evening sunshine soon turns to cool moonlight as pinks and purples glow upon skin and through sprawling tree limbs. A particularly active painting of girls capturing a spider for inspection and playing with a dog, the artist lures viewer into the scene, which plays out underneath a mystical evening sky.
Swimming at Night (2022) feels as though the viewer is let in on a secret: it’s an exciting excursion into the night, beneath a veil of stars cloaking the land. Aglow in a full moon’s silvery-blue light, the life of animals and swaying trees and cold grass come alive. Patterns created by nature fill the painting, including the texture of stones, a turtle’s back, and a sprig of pine needles creating ripples in water. Wadlington repeatedly exhibits the simple beauty of the outdoors in the vastness of her skies, and in the mundane details her characters carefully examine.
Elusive twilight and evening skies guide the exhibit, urging viewers to feel childlike wonder through the paintings. In her dramatically stylized depictions, Wadlington draws much from her new home in College Station, Texas to reflect the vivacity of her stories during distinctly different times of day. Digging in the Rain (2021) employs darker tones than other works in the show — it encapsulates the fight between rain clouds and fading sunlight in an intense storm, while drops pelt the scene’s desperate characters. The painting shows the frantic mission of a helpless, blue figure clawing at the muddied ground, alongside a dog squirming under a chain link fence. Unlike her other paintings, this dreary work holds delicate despair that mirrors the grim ecological narrative Wadlington attempts to combat.
Places that Grow is composed of scenes capturing seemingly solitary moments. Paling moonlight envelopes Early Morning (2022), a sleepy snapshot of a child stooping to feed a stray cat. Completely immersed in their mission to save the bees or excavate fossil-filled flowerbeds or find wildlife in the night, Wadlington’s characters exude a comforting sense of home found in nature throughout the show.
This is an exhibit of stolen time, which captures the spirit and movements of youth in their exploration of natural curiosities. Using her adolescence to guide the show, Wadlington creates semi-autobiographical vignettes of memories in the great outdoors that resist simple, whimsical narratives.
Places That Grow is on view through August 21 at the Dallas Contemporary.