The Landscape Going on Without Us

Toronto-based painter Jennifer Carvalho has been concerned with where we are and where the world is, and her recent paintings are an evocative inquiry into the location and quality of that threshold. “I began this body of work wondering, what does it mean to think through the landscape? For me, it’s not really clear where the earth begins and where humanity ends. So I’m thinking about the limits of our place in the world.” She found herself in the Anthropocene, the “human age,” in which our activities are altering the world’s ecosystems and geological processes.

Her research has included literature, science, philosophy, visual art, poetry and film. For Unexpected Connections, a dense and somber forestscape that contains a shifting moon, she looked to Caspar David Friedrich; Death By Landscape borrowed its title and sense of space from a Margaret Atwood short story. “In the story a character disappears on a cliff, so I was looking for an image that had a groundless quality, shot from a place you wouldn’t normally have access to.” The painting is complex and mesmerizing; as viewers we are both above and below the landscape, obliged to look down and climb up at the same time. Its deliberate and skilful confusion produces a superb painting.

Carvalho’s paintings often implicate the viewer in unusual ways. In the three versions of Tomorrow, we’ll try again, we move to the right of a house and then in closer, always using the massive V-shaped trunk of the tree as a screen. The shift in scale alters where we are as viewers. “I don’t want that relationship to be mechanical, to have the obvious feel of looking through a camera lens.” That’s not the feeling we get. The unease the painting produces is precisely because the eye belongs to us and not to a piece of technology. As a result, we participate in an ominous surveillance.

Jennifer Carvalho, A grey noise, 2015, oil on canvas, 20 x 20 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

The image is a screen grab from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice, 1986, and the painting’s title is a line from Béla Tarr’s screenplay for The Turin Horse, 2011. All the paintings in this series are taken from films about disaster, extinction or apocalypse, narratives that consider the limits of the way we live in the world and that are prepared to consider the end of time. In the process of her research into the Anthropocene, Carvalho has written down words, phrases and ideas which she found of interest. Grey Noise, a 20 x 20-inch oil on canvas (all are modestly-sized oil paintings), comes from that list. To render the landscape she chooses a limited palette, mixing a Courbet green with a Sap green to capture a sense of amorphous foreboding. Carvalho prefers subdued colours; the mix of olive green and blue in Unexpected Connections produces a colour close to an impenetrable black. Its opaqueness sets a tone of exacting anxiety.

For Jennifer Carvalho the Anthropocene is not an endgame. “It’s an in-between time,” she says. “I’m not trying to emphasize an end but a line of thought that leads away from ourselves. What does it mean if the world has a will of its own and what is our relationship to that? What would the world look like without us?”

Volume 34, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #135, published August 2015.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.