Laura Colomb: The End of Eden
July 14 through August 14, 2021
By ROBERT R. SHANE, July 2021
Although marketed as places for leisure and respite, American nature preserves are often located on sites of historical trauma, a dichotomy explored by landscape painter Laura Colomb. The oil on panel paintings in Colomb’s most recent series (2019-2021) set in the swampy environs outside Jacksonville, Florida, teem with life, but this energy her mark-making evokes comes from below the surface, deep within the foliage and deep within time. As we are entranced by luminous shafts of yellow and blue light glowing between dark gnarled branches and trunks that rise from the fiery red forest floor, we sense we may in fact be trapped under the green canopy weighing down above us. Colomb’s works, often painted on former plantations and battlegrounds, instill disquiet in us—a feeling reinforced by violent palette knife scratches revealing red and green underpainting, like silent screams of a past yearning to be heard or prophecies of climate catastrophes to come.
Landscape is not a means of escapism under Colomb’s brush but of combating cultural amnesia. Hooded Land (2021) is filled with the vibrant tropical color of the region as speckles of yellow like mango flesh pattern one tree branch. As in many of Colomb’s works, the brightest light comes not from the glimpses of blue sky peeking through the canopy, but from deep within the forest where light has penetrated and expands outward. In this case, the central white light framed by skinny tree trunks recalls the shape of Philip Guston’s KKK hoods, an association Colomb made in a public artist talk (archived on the Lake George Arts Project website). Fellow traveling with philosopher Christina Sharpe’s notion of “residence time”—the persistence of elements from people’s bodies in the landscape which bear witness to their stories—Colomb’s paintings with titles like The Hanging Tree (2018) and Flesh (2019) underscore the history of white supremacist atrocities committed on these lands.
Colomb’s square and vertically oriented formats compel us to stay in these spaces and perform memory work. They do not allow for the leisurely, side-to-side meandering of our eyes through the open space of a traditional, horizontally oriented picturesque scene or panorama. Four vertical works of gouache and watercolor on paper in the exhibition, each depicting Kingsley Plantation, are large enough to enter. In Kingsley Path (2021) a perspectival white path draws us into a tunnel of oak trees. Unable to escape to the left or right, we must enter. As we do, we are swept up, slightly disoriented by the weight of the trees looming above us and their labyrinths of shadow and light. Spanish moss mournfully draped from their branches read like natural memorials.
Similarly, we find a landscape memorial in the intimately-scaled panel painting Ghosts (2019), a strikingly somber piece in an exhibition so often characterized by tropical color. The light from an ashen sky falls over deadened trees that once grew out of a murky swamp into whose depths of viscous brushwork we sink. We observe all this standing on the nest-like tufts of grass on one patch of land in the lower right of the foreground.
Such compositional devices placing us in the space call our attention not only to our role as observers of these landscapes but our activities within it. We cannot view Colomb’s—nor any contemporary landscape paintings for that matter—without the backdrop of climate crisis. Even without Colomb’s occasional references to a human presence—a red plastic Solo cup or other debris, for example—we are keenly aware of the vulnerability of these environments. The exhibition’s title The End of Eden foretells the impending climate disaster, while also recalling the disaster that has already happened and began in this region in 1539 when Spanish colonizers enslaved the first Africans on Florida soil. These simultaneous future and past endings are linked by what philosopher Donna Haraway and others have termed the Plantationocene—a concept Colomb engages by way of her study of the artwork of Torkwase Dyson, whom she credits with transforming her understanding of the relationships between landscape, history, and form. Unlike the notion of the Anthropocene which assumes climate disaster is a species-level problem, the Plantationocene underscores that it is a systemic one, resulting from a plantation economy structure of exploiting lands and people that has persisted in various iterations to this day.
Colomb’s work maintains a critical vigilance that disrupts passive consumption of both the nature preserves in her pictures and the genre of landscape painting, and instead provides a necessarily disturbing space to think about the recent emergency of climate change and the 500-year long emergency of colonial violence. Colomb’s labor, evident through her visible mark-making and her density of paint, mimics both the unbridled growth of the forests she depicts and the work that needs to be done to dismantle the Plantationocene. WM
Robert R. Shane is a critic and curator and received his PhD in art history and criticism from Stony Brook University.view all articles from this author