Path into the Wildness - Art Essay by Fredrick Koeppel

Path into the wildness

The opening of the American continent unfolded unprecedented vistas for the migrants and pioneers that braved the arduous journeys required. From the Adirondacks to the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada, from dense, silent forests across the Great Plains to the western desert, geography and geology provided views that testified to the sublime quality of nature and its transcendent hold upon the human imagination. Landscape painters followed where pioneers traveled, and, in the Romantic tradition of 19th Century European poetry and art, produced works that reflected the intimate connection between the spiritual aspirations of human beings and the divine spark that animated the natural realm of America’s vastness and variety.

The artists of the Hudson River School -- including, chiefly, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Thomas Mo-ran, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church -- working between about 1820 and 1870, created land-scape paintings that testified not only to the grandeur of the diverse American landscape but to its trans-figuration to the realm of the sublime and spiritual.

Throughout his artistic career, John Torina, once of Memphis and now living in Costa Rica, has dis-played intuitive affinities with the artists of the Hudson River School and their adherents. Con-centrating on the landscape genre, Torina first ex-plored the visual beauties of West Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta, while recently bringing the same focus and technique to his work in Costa Rica, a small Latin American country noted for its variable tropical climate, its beautiful landscape and its access to open water on two sides, with shorelines on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. While he has evolved stylistically, Torina has never wavered from his core belief in the spir-itual character of the natural world and the artist’s responsibility to convey that overarching quality to the viewer by means of canvas and paint.

Pantheistic sense

Born in Memphis in 1953, Torina finally followed the advice of the people who had been telling him to go to art school when he was 25; he had previously been a music major. The result was a bachelor of fine arts degree from Memphis College of Art in 1982 and a master of fine arts from the University of Oregon, Eugene, in 1986.

Torina's commitment to landscape painting derives from several sources, one an early childhood influ-ence. "My parents had a great love of the out-doors," the artist once said in an interview. "They took me out when I was an infant when they went fishing. They would lay me on a blanket on the boat." Another influence was the landscape of the west, encountered when Torina was in graduate school in Oregon and on various sojourns in the direction of those mountains and shorelines. Most im-portant, however, is Torina's pantheistic sense of what he called "the divine spirit in nature, being able to see the holy spirit spread abroad in whatever religion."

In an era when many portraitists and landscape painters work from photographs, Torina exercises his craft the old-fashioned way; he paints en plein air, in the outdoors, and doesn’t touch the finished piece when it’s in his studio. The result of this practice approximates how fluid, vibrant and transitory are the effects of nature and atmosphere and incorporates that mutability into the body of the painting itself.

With few exceptions, the artist’s habit is to place the landscape part of the painting, the actual Earth, under a fairly low horizon line, with the rest of the picture being the sky that reaches up to the top. This is not an unusual technique among land-scape and seascape artists, for whom the sky and its dynamic cloud-and-light-filled architecture is often more important than the “land” of the landscape. You could say that Torina specializes in the luminous and transcendent metamorphic powers of the sky. This technique was particularly useful when the artist worked primarily in West Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta south of Memphis, where the geography and terrain are fairly level and uniform.

Costa Rica, however, with its highly variable geography, presented Torina with other and richer possibilities. The depictions of coastlines and seascapes, jungles and mountains require aspects that are not only visually and psychologically eloquent but also idyllic, penetrating and somehow “tropical.” Much has been written about the phenomenon called “late style,” a factor of which is that as artists, poets, composers, choreographers and other creative types age, they tend to pare down their efforts, their work becoming more simple, spare, verging on the universally abstract.

Verging on the ecstatic

While no one would call John Torina old -- he’s only 64 -- he seems, under the influence of his new environment, to evince the features of a late style. The work in the present exhibition feels closer to abstraction than to any the artist has produced before. The brushwork is loose, rapid and sketchy, affording a sense of spontaneous involvement in the ever-changing qualities of sky and weather. Above all, the depth and quality of the presentation of light -- luminous and transcendent -- are not only quietly spectacular but verging on the ecstatic.

While the artist occasionally works in a large scale -- “River to the Sea” measures 48-by-60 inches -- he is also capable of delving into a more intimate format, particularly in this exhibition in a series of paintings of flowers. The effect in these pieces, tightly focused on spare floral groupings, is of a sentient presence that is almost overwhelming, not through any technique of ultra-realism but through Torina’s intuitive grasp of dark but radiant pigments and a sense of quickness, a deft, sure touch and the ability to convey a feeling of potent intensity.


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