A version of this article was first published by the Reno News & Review on Nov. 8
Each time I look at an art exhibition with the intention of writing about it, I spend a bit of time thinking about how to best frame the discussion. I’m not an encyclopedia author, so I tend to narrow it down to one angle—whichever one seems most useful or illuminating. Should I discuss how the images do or don’t respond to current trends? Try to unpack the artist’s intentions? Tell their backstory? Learn the details of how this backstory influenced their values and aesthetics?
This Swiss Army Knife of frameworks usually serves me just fine. But once in a while, a body of artwork just stops me in my tracks. It makes me want to stop talking and start worrying—about how describing, contextualizing, and explaining this particular work might ruin the experience of looking at it.
This is subjective, mind you. My shut-up-and-don’t-ruin-it art is different from your shut-up-and-don’t-ruin-it art. You know the phrase “There’s no accounting for taste”? In my opinion, that’s as useless as it is ubiquitous. It’s dead wrong. It’s a giant cop-out. There is so much accounting for taste.
Phyllis Shafer’s current exhibition at the Lilley Museum, The Nature of Time, is one of those shows that makes me want to simply announce, “It’s perfect” or “It’s too transcendent to soil with mere words.” But I won’t leave you hanging. I’ll account for my taste. Here’s why these paintings stop me in my tracks.
Shafer paints the Sierra Nevada vistas you already know well if you’re a Northern Nevada or Northern California hiker—but not the ones the tourist board might have advised. No Emerald Bay; no Sand Harbor. She paints intimate, reverent views of places like Fallen Leaf Lake, Sagehen Peak, and Hope Valley, and she’s just as concerned with the minor triumphs of nature as with the dramatic vistas.
Shafer’s version of the landscape is always dazzling, but it’s never idealized or sanitized. In her personal taxonomy, unglamorous flowers that no one ever gets tattooed on them (like common yarrow or arrow-leaf balsamroot) can take center stage—and own it. A creek lined with leafless, fallen elm trunks is still a place you want to spend time at. Dead conifers don’t get edited out of otherwise picturesques hillsides. And an entire composition can be anchored by that sinus-tormenting, high-desert demon (a-choo!), rabbitbrush—not just because it’s a deep, enticing gold, but because it belongs in this landscape.
Have you ever gotten really skilled at something oddly specific—then spent years honing in on the subtleties of that thing and getting so good at it it almost no longer makes sense? Whether it’s your sourdough or your songwriting, this is when the magic happens, when you take that oddly specific skill from good to amazing to “how is that even possible?”
Shafer has a lot of these skills. She’s lived in the Lake Tahoe region since 1994 (and she was already an expert landscape painter when she arrived), which means she’s been watching the clouds roll by, the leaves turn crunchy in fall, and the snow fall and melt on the same slopes for almost 30 years. One of her real superpowers is deciding what should look real and what should not look real. Take her clouds. She’ll distill a skyful of them into a half dozen shades of eggshell and beige (or sherbert, periwinkle, bleached-out salmon, whatever the sky is doing that day) and lay them out in wavy bands of solid color. The clouds are several steps removed from photorealism, but it’s uncanny how much they feel like the sky above these very mountains and meadows on a sunny/overcast/winter/summer day. Shafer’s sweeps of abstraction convey the essence of these places better in one image than the hundreds of Sierra sky snapshots in my iPhone combined—even though she said it in her own made-up visual language.
Sometimes, you find art that really speaks to you. Sometimes, you find art that speaks for you. Often, landscape art makes me want to leave the gallery and go hiking. This particular landscape art makes me want to stay in the gallery all day.
Phyllis Shafer’s exhibition The Nature of Time is on view at the Lilley Museum at the University of Nevada, Reno through Jan. 27. Phyllis Shafer: Painting the West is on view at the Northeast Nevada Museum in Elko through April, with a reception on Fri., Feb. 1, 6-8 p.m. in Halleck Bar Gallery.
Photos: Kris Vagner