Blue Skies


Isca Greenfield-Sanders’ new body of paintings looks much like her previous work. It is centered on landscapes of such glowing beauty that it might restore our once held belief that God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world, although it’s been some time since the Victorian poet Robert Browning’s assertion could be quoted without skepticism or irony. Nonetheless, there is reassurance, all the more welcomed because so rare these days, in Greenfield-Sanders’ steadiness of vision that is (literally) blue-skied and upbeat, both nostalgic and timeless, the world of her imagination poised delicately, gracefully adjacent to the world that exists, a world increasingly threatened with extinction due to our own self-destructive follies. Her sense of nature is not that of the Romantic sublime; rather, she views it from a more benign, non-adversarial, feminist-inflected perspective. She prefers a less overwhelming intention and scale, often populating her scenes with people at ease in nature, implicitly aware of its enveloping glories, although there are fewer figures in this exhibition’s selection, nature given the lead role.

These paintings, as in the past, appear to spill over with colors but she uses only a handful, she said (quinacridones, ultramarine blues, viridians, terre verte, aureolins, preferring translucent hues). There are also no blacks here, and no nocturnal vistas. If these works are not always about morning in America, they are never about night, since she is more interested in exploring and capturing the interplay of daylight and color on water, beach, fields, earth, trees, say, constantly exploring new ways to portray that. Her work wheels through time, seasons, and weather, deftly summoning the transparent hues of early morning or the diffused light of an overcast day, the brightness of a summer noon so incandescent that you might think you need to blink while regarding it or a wintry scene that looks so cold you might shiver. Most often, the paintings are dominated by the blues of skies, lakes, seas, distant mountains, and of shadows. One of her newest paintings, Seven Trees (2024), is strewn by diagonal ribbons of a silken blue in the foreground meant to be shadows. But how can those trees cast such shadows? Are they shadows? Yet that hardly matters since they activate and anchor the painting and are critical to the composition, these kinds of feints and teasing ambiguities common in a practice in which the needs of the painting trump that of verisimilitude. Blue, lightened, darkened, brushed with white, can become foam-capped waves, snow, an icebound lake, or a pooled surface of water so still it can act as a mirror, reflecting the images of two children at play nearby. The paintings are also awash in beguiling pinks, some evoking meadows tangled with wildflowers or huge banks of rosy cumulus clouds. Then there are the greens, in woods, grasses, throughout. The horizon also shifts, raised and lowered as if seen through a lens to expand and contract the pictorial space, the focus often moved to the middle ground, its imagery clearly delineated while the foreground is out of focus and the background is blued, using a form of atmospheric perspective to imply distance, her techniques suggestive of the artists she admires, among them Corot, Sisley, Manet and his exquisite flower paintings.

Greenfield-Sanders is not a plein air painter and mimesis, as noted, is not her primary goal. As an eight-year old, she wanted to make landscapes—and she still does. She knew it was old-fashioned but that didn’t dissuade her. Once that was a given, she pivoted to the more challenging task of how she would realize those landscapes since, regardless of the style or subject matter, paintings are, before all else, as the postimpressionist artist Maurice Denis famously pointed out, “essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.” Eventually, she started by sourcing her content from 1950s and 1960s photographs, not surprising since she grew up with the medium. Taken by anonymous amateur photographers, she buys them in large lots, then eagerly rummages through them in search of images she finds compelling, almost all of them commemorating moments and places in mid-century lives. They are prompts to memory and shape the way we remember the past, a blend, no doubt, of truth and fiction. Although they are constructions and not real places, she is often asked to identify the scene she has painted, those inquiring insisting that they know the location and have been there. She finds that affirming since she wants the painting to be a repository of sorts, to offer sufficient imaginative space for the viewer to insert their personal memories into it.

The process that Greenfield-Sanders has evolved is elaborate and methodical, based on a combination of photography and painting, the former a medium predicated on speed, the latter much slower to execute. It is system-driven and begins with a selection of photographic images (she believes most contemporary representative painters work from photographs or some form of replicated or generated imagery), then the images are digitalized and combined. She transforms these composites into watercolors, followed by a trove of small paintings that are 17” squares. From there, she scales up to larger paintings in various dimensions. All of this is a way of collecting information and extending the process to determine how the image functions, how it feels, visually and emotionally, learning as she proceeds to determine what is successful, what is not, the process allowing her time to consider, adjust, add depth to the work, the idea of slow painting in this instance as much about the making of the painting as it is about the looking at it. When asked what might have changed in these new works, she said that because she changes and sees things differently, the paintings inevitably changes. She started to paint quite young, so after 25years, her skills have improved, and she has become more fluent but there is always something else she wants to achieve, confronted by something she hadn’t noticed before in a favorite work, a favorite artist, so it is a continuous learning curve.

These are not meant to be heroic paintings. They might be considered women’s painting since many women avoided grand themes, as a “form of rebellion,” the artist said, a way to discover other ways of making sense of the world, other hierarchies of significance, I might add. After all, “flower paintings are not made because you want to do something important.” Pausing, she laughed and asked, “did anyone really want to paint history paintings?” While I had never asked myself that, in thinking it over, I would, without question, much rather look at a Manet flower painting, a mound of Chardin strawberries, a Morandi still life, or a sunlit field of Greenfield-Sanders’ wildflowers.

Lilly Wei is a New York based art critic, independent curator, writer and journalist whose area of interest is global contemporary art.