Isca Greenfield-Sanders: Looking Back at the Road Ahead


I’m in the studio where Isca Greenfield-Sanders makes art. Her apartment is in the same building a few floors down. It’s a walk-up. I’m feeling a little light in the head, but that may be an effect of the paintings propped around the room. All are square – square in format, this is. Not uncool. Greenfield-Sanders calls them landscapes. I see hallucinations.

This is my first introduction to her work. I need to give it a minute.

Bend in the Road is a mountain scene. It has the look of a million souvenir postcards, but it does not conform to type. In reality such a road would be a two-lane blacktop. On this canvas it’s a fuzzy pink. The road curves gently around a hill topped by flamboyant nests of greenery, while the rockface appears to have endured a rain of lava that erupted from the set of Barbie. It’s the color of cotton candy.

Daylight floods the area, but the sky is thick with clouds. Off the shoulder on the near side of the road, a grassy slope sprinkled with yellow flowers descends into a thicket of bushes and trees as deep a green as that of any black forest, only there is no forest. Just treetops in a ravine. Then there is the drone-like view: it’s as if we are looking through the windshield of an airborne car that is hurtling off the road.

I need to catch my breath. Each canvas is another riddle.

Can we discuss Pine Beach? Here we have a family gathered on a spit of sand before a stand of oddly flowering evergreens. We see a beach chair and a sun umbrella. We see a woman in a blue bathing suit. Yet the only hint of water is the refracted light behind the trees. The beach is on a marsh that is choked by tall pink and green weeds. The figures are indistinct from our perch in the distance, perhaps from a boat run aground in the muck. Are we sinking?

A raging pink slime blots the reflection of wispy clouds over the remote pond in Cloud Creek. Where is its outlet? We view the crowd on Pink Cloud Beach from an ocean that is drowning us. What about the seven tall trees in the painting of that name? Their trunks, as lean as stalks of asparagus, show signs of spring. The sunlight is as blinding white as the snow on the ground, which has yet to melt. At least it looks like snow. Or is it a creek? Is what I’m seeing the aftermath of a flood?

These paintings may be studio fantasias but they’re real enough; people swear that they’ve been to one or another of the sites they describe. Even I thought that the dense field of fuchsia, French blue and pearly white flowers that have grown to my height on a seaside bluff was the view from an abandoned resort I stumbled across one summer in Bermuda.

For some time now, Greenfield-Sanders has been storming the gates of a genre that has long been the province of Sunday painters – hobbyists who take their pleasure in achieving verisimilitude. Clearly that is not her purpose.

She is no kind of copyist. The indeterminate locations and questionable viewpoints at play in her paintings are the soul of her project: to render the natural world by dispensing with naturalism. Of course, that hasn’t mattered so much to art for more than a hundred years. Think Matisse. Actually, as it turns out, Greenfield-Sanders relies on photographs.

They’re not her own. Nor does she lift them from the Internet. They come from slides taken by anonymous tourists when cameras still required film.

To hunt for them, Greenfield-Sanders forages in flea markets. She stops at yard sales. She rifles through junk shop bins. From each outing she brings home crates of random, 35-milimeter slides that were lost or forgotten by travelers pointing cameras at stunning vistas or shooting family vacations. She has thousands of these vernacular images. Most date back seventy years and give evidence to an almost antediluvian world before smartphone screens flattened it, before climate change sickened it, before industry and megalopolis laid waste to wilderness idealized by song lyrics in purple waves of grain.

As Greenfield-Sanders puts it, “Photography is a poor match for landscapes.” (The ghost of Ansel Adams was not in the room.) Her interest lies in the way photographic mementoes shape experience that time distorts. Memories fade. They conflate. They become a history that is less a record of fact than the stuff of dreams.

The painter’s eye sees farther than a camera. She has the know-how and the tools to manipulate and interpret what it captures. Her considerable labors involve a scanner, a computer, and a printer as well as oil paint, watercolor, paper, canvas, easel, and brushes.

The process is complicated. It goes something like this: pick a slide, scan the photo, “correct” its colors, crop it, rough up its proportions, combine it with details from other scans, print the result, then render it in pencil and watercolor on a small square of paper.

That’s only the beginning.

Make another scan of the painted print, and repeat, adding, fusing, or eliminating figures and other details, alter the scale, the focus, and the light, print an enlargement. Repeat. Next, paint studies on a modestly sized canvas to see how it all gels. Go back to the scan. Enlarge the image once again, then move to a much larger canvas.  Paste on the paper prints with a slight overlap to create a visible grid. Embellish the prints with oils. When there is no way to distinguish a brushstroke from its facsimile, when the eye can hardly discern in which patch a trace of the original photograph remains, the process is complete, the painting done.

What you get is a splendid mashup of its lineage: the perspectival illusionism of Renaissance picture-making and the windowpane structure of a Gilbert & George light box. What you get is a credible painting that is proud to show its seams. It’s like dressing in layers, each obscuring and revealing what came before, but only when the viewer is present. Reproductions vacate meaning and texture. Paint and print become indivisible. Gridlines disappear.

Greenfield-Sanders holds her palette to just five colors, with allowances for shading. If her environments feel removed from ordinary life, it’s because they are uninterrupted by commercial signage, oil rigs, shopping malls, data centers, missile silos, or even farms; for the most part, they are unmolested by either animals or people. They are places time forgot. They are prehistory. They are everywhere and nowhere at once, and yet downright specific – untamed lands that nobody owns, and anyone can claim.

Born and raised in New York with artists on both sides of her family, Greenfield-Sanders is the daughter of a portrait photographer with a darkroom at home. She could shoot, develop, and print her own pictures from the age of ten, but childhood visits to museums are what determined her future as a painter.

She cites Winslow Homer and J.M.W. Turner as early inspirations, but the artist that her own works recall is Thomas Cole. The seven monumental paintings in his predictive Course of Empire cycle illustrate what happens to an arcadia when people compelled by war and avarice clear, pollute, drain, and restrict its pristine territories by introducing them to toxic waste, massive construction, and ruthless competition, all in the name of civilized progress.

Greenfield-Sanders is 45, married to another artist, and the mother of two children. Other artists today share her concerns over human exploitation of the planet in very different ways. Alexis Rockman and Walton Ford are two, and their painted commentaries are acute, but they stick to traditional techniques of painting that Greenfield-Sanders rejects. She looks forward by digging into a past she never knew and reimagining the present. It has lakes frozen in the Ice Age that are yet to be discovered. It has fjord-like reservoirs that no population will tap. These enigmas are not grim or frightening. The agony of their existence is beauty.

The slides that are her raw materials date back to the era when cars came in bright colors and had chrome and big fins. In that period, at the insistence of the First Lady, President Lyndon B Johnson pressured Congress into passing the 1965 Highway Beautification Act. Lady Bird Johnson campaigned across the country to encourage the prohibition of outdoor advertising on interstate and other federally funded highways, stamp out litter, and enhance new roads with variegated plantings.

I think of Lady Bird when I see Mountain Landscape, another pastel roadway in a remote Alpine region. The landscape is unperturbed by human intervention, except for the hot pink roadster heading toward an oncoming vehicle. Like the young couple stopped in their tracks to stare, either in alarm or wonderment, at a skyward event beyond the scope of Step Hike, the cars look tiny in the majesty of their surroundings. As if they were adorable toys instead of gas-guzzlers about to collide.

“Landscapes,” Greenfield-Sanders says, “teach us how small we humans are.”

And how far we reach.

When I leave her studio, my mind turns to a country road in upstate New York. Its five-mile length winds through woodlands to a lake in view of the Berkshire Mountains. There is not a single billboard or cell tower on the route. On maps it’s County Road 11, but after it won a national contest in 1969, people in the area adopted a new name for it: The Beauty Highway.

I have traveled this road. It is not prettier than many other roads in Columbia County, nor does it even vaguely resemble any that Isca Greenfield-Sanders has painted.

I would send her a picture, but who uses film anymore, anyway?


Linda Yablonsky is an art critic, novelist, and culture reporter based in New York. Over thirty years’ time, her byline has appeared in numerous mainstream and art publications including The New York Times and T Magazine, the Wall Street Journal Magazine, W, and Art News, as well as on such digital platforms as and Bloomberg. She contributes exhibition reviews and a monthly column, New York Insider, to The Art Newspaper and is writing the biography of the artist Jeff Koons.