Land, sea and sky as a metaphor

Critic's Corner//Art

Drawings, photos trigger a visual dialog between each other

January 31, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun art critic

The art of landscape is by definition poetic and symbolical. We respond to pictures of field and forest, mountain and sea because the varied moods of nature somehow seem to echo our innermost thoughts and feelings.

Landscape as metaphor is a recurring motif in Terra Incognito/Terra Cognito, an exhibition of recent works by painter Ruth Pettus and photographer Michela Caudill at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

Pettus' atmospheric ink drawings and Caudill's spare, black-and-white photographs are mounted on opposing walls, where they activate a subtle visual dialog between the two media.

Upon entering the exhibition, for example, it's not immediately clear which of the images are drawings and which are photographs. Both sets of images are divided roughly in half by a simple horizon line, and both artists represent the details of earth, sea and sky in closely spaced tones of black, white and gray.

Pettus' drawings seem more like lyrical improvisations on a theme than precise descriptions of specific places, though the longer one looks at them, the more one is convinced that these darkling perspectives must have real counterparts.

What is specific to each picture, however, is not a geographical location but a mood. By some ingenious alchemy of ink and brush, the artist has contrived to create a series of 18 images with as many different moods.

One can only admire the subtlety with which these emotional distinctions are drawn. The images, so similar in structure, seem as finely graduated in feeling as are the delicate shades of gray in which they are rendered.

Caudill's photographs limn the contours of rocky beaches and crashing ocean waves in what appear to be some of the world's most remote locales, though, as in Pettus' drawings, none of the sites is identified by name.

Photographed landscapes are almost always more factually specific than painted ones, and Caudill's are no exception.

Even in her most expansive vistas of earth and sky, one can make out the tiniest topographical details such as the pebbles strewn along a sandy shore or the blades of grass sprouting beneath a giant stone outcropping.

Yet in their evocation of human feeling, these images are no less subtle or poetic for all their visual specificity.

Beneath the apparent solidity and immobility of Caudill's monumental terrestrial formations, one senses the presence of volcanic subterranean forces that have shaped these placid views over eons of geological time.

As metaphors for the soul's journey, the images remind us that nature's patient, glacial rhythms are also imprinted on our fleeting human forms, and that Earth is constantly remaking itself right under our feet.

"Terra Incognito/Terra Cognito" runs through March 2 in the Gormley Gallery at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, 4701 N. Charles St. Call 410-435-0100 or go to

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