About the Artist
Douglas Atwill’s “Careless-Ordered” Garden
That is well said, replied Candide, but we must Cultivate our own garden. – Voltaire
The “Little Masters” of the golden age of Dutch painting have as firm a niche in posterity as the great “Masters,” such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, et alia. This is so because while their vision of reality was rooted in the same affluent society, their ambitions, and often their predilections were more particular. Those “Little Masters” sought to illuminate their own special corner of the world; the small cosmos of some was the depiction of animals in some sunny “peaceable kingdom,” others painted the interiors of opulent Dutch kitchens. Still another charming group advanced the history of still-life painting by glorifying, over and again, the enchanting life of flowers.
While Douglas Atwill, in the past, has fully demonstrated his capacity to paint lush and extravagant landscapes with limitless vistas, it is curious, nonetheless, that even in those sweeping images, it is very often the wayside flowers and the dusty foliage crowding the foreground which capture our attention almost immediately. It could be said that, in the end, this long-established Santa Fe artist is possessed of a very domestic vision, a take on the world as some personal, secret garden. Atwill, in his newest floral works, gives the viewer a glimpse into his own giardino segreto, a very private place, at once revealing of the life of a garden as well as the personality of the artist.
No attentive viewer could fail to guess that here is an artist of true sanguine temperament and, for the most part, a decidedly sunny disposition. And, in the end, many a viewer, contemplating Atwill’s new gardenscapes, might even see these works as especially illustrative of that familiar Impressionist description of art as “a fragment of nature, as seen through a temperament.” The temperament of Douglas Atwill, transposed to paint, certainly seems to be, “always ‘high noon,’ ” a phrase he has tossed out as descriptive of his work.
Atwill’s “portraits,” if you will, of billowing, sun-splashed gardens are very high-keyed indeed, glorying in the expressiveness of bright, unadulterated color as well as in the place of light and shadow over the trembling foliage and flowers. (Atwill’s work, for this viewer, somehow suggests the style of many American Impressionists who, in their study of the painterly methods of their French idols, arrived at a kind of “impression” of nature seen, perhaps, as though “through two temperaments,” a vision somehow twice-removed from the subject).
Atwill requires limitations to his vision; his gardens only run riot within a carefully constructed enclosure. While his shrubs and flowers may at first seem delightfully “careless-ordered,” they are in fact rigorously circumscribed, in the tight, often square-framed format the artist prefers, and also in their very compositional structure.
The occasional path or garden wall which appears to plunge into the distance rarely ever lends any substantial depth to the compositions; this is most often assured by the artist’s constant preference for a very high horizon-line. The end effect of these images is one of tapestry, rather than painting. It is rather as though we are presented with an unfurled bolt of richly figured damask, as opposed to some fleeting scene.
In this respect, Atwill’s work takes on the unabashed decorative intentions of artists like Matisse and the Fauves; his new works have the effect of elegantly printed textiles or embroideries, somewhat like the elegant and airy paintings of Raoul Dufy, in fact. That “little master” of Fauvism cultivated a vision of joie de vivre that relied upon sprightly inventions of pattern-on-pattern; it is this same rollicking pattern–on-pattern in Atwill’s work which gives his gardens their textural appeal – brushstrokes here often look like silken threads, or patches of satin appliqued to the surface. Certain, the richness of Atwill’s images has more to do with the “artfulness” of art than with the actual experience of a summer garden. We are forced finally to recognize that these seemingly casual landscapes are anything but “careless-ordered.”
The surfaces of Douglas Atwill’s new works are a riot of articulation; with the punctiliousness of a Seurat, Atwill activates his tapestries with precise dabs of pure color which surely take many hours of concentration. That hard work showsjustsp; jsut as that work shows in Pointillist painting, with fascinating effect. Atwill works are, like fine textiles, truly “all-over” designs, where no special part of the painting, or portion of his garden, is the real focus. In sum, there are no “climaxes” in these works; they rely upon a tireless, careful patterning for their sumptuous effect.
Atwill’s art, if not his entire life, appears to abide by the eminently sensible admonition of Voltaire’s Candide – that we should each “cultivate our own garden,” or tend to our own business. Just as Atwill famously cultivates exceptional real gardens in Santa Fe, carefully walled and most artfully, though “artlessly,” ordered gardens, so has he also, over the years, refined his artistic vocabulary and methods to the point where his works are instantly recognizable. His style, then, has been meticulously developed and his continuing growth takes place with its confines.
Some of the finest works in the long history of art have been perfected by the same exacting process, i.e. the process of taking apparent limitations as a springboard for inventiveness. The handsome illuminations of medieval manuscripts were confined to the demands of the size of the page and of their parchment surfaces. The beguiling, enamel-like colors of calligraphy of Persian and Indian miniatures arise from the strict limitations of their small pages which were to be filled with both writing and decoration. The marvelous carvings of jade and ivory, through the centuries, always fascinate us by the very ingenuity of the artist in adapting his conception to the limitations, the shapes and the colors of the materials in hand.
It is the challenge of the surfaces and the materials, in all such cases, which forced the artist to delve into his imagination and reveal, over and over, how his work might defy limitation and appear new. It is Douglas Atwill’s talent, also, to set his parameters, of subject-matter and format, of palette and texture, and then continually come up with engaging work bathed in his own special charm and optimism and the joy of “high noon.”
Jan Ernst Adlmann
Santa Fe, New Mexico