“Is not the core of nature already inside the heart of humankind.” – German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I don’t typically fancy myself as someone who is heavily invested in images of landscapes. I can appreciate them aesthetically; but in most cases, as I struggle to find anything conceptual, I just keep moving. And so, due to my own ignorance, at first glance it would be easy for me to overlook the work of Ysabel LeMay. But this would be tremendously short sighted as her decadent and lush (really beyond lush) images are delightfully intoxicating and surprisingly rich. She has, in her current exhibition at Catherine Edelman Gallery, created photographs that challenge my very perception of landscape and my opinion on landscape as subject.
Author William M. Bryant, in The Philosophy of Landscape, compels us to consider the philosophy of landscape, not only because of its long history as subject matter in art; but also because there is, more importantly, an obvious relation that rises from the inherent relationship of Reason of the internalized human consciousness and the externalized, unconscious forms of nature. While both point to some form of the infinite (whether that form is divine is not presupposed), both are substantial, concrete, physical, and spiritual. He writes: “while absolute Reason remains forever the same in the midst of its infinitely rich diversity; its phases, both in the outer world of nature and in the inner world of the human spirit, are constantly undergoing a process of development, of evolution. It thus happens that as human reason attains to greater fullness of realization on its own part it will be met by (that is, it will become conscious of) new and profounder revelations of the reason everywhere present in the outer world as well.” Therefore, the profoundest and perhaps most significant opportunities for growth (individually and collectively) are the inexhaustible meanings found in nature. But here’s what’s interesting, if I am only willing to look, landscape artists present the simple, external realities of nature, spiritually endowed and represented as it appears to them; therefore, creating said possibilities for not only themselves but for me as well. And, perhaps, as Bryant expounds “the more subtle [the] comprehension of nature the more significant and true — and therefore the more beautiful — will be [their] representation of nature.” This, indeed, becomes more and more evident as I supervene into the work of Ysabel LeMay.
Both a fairytale and homage, Ysabel LeMay: Wonders honors nature in all its divine power and beauty, and then explodes with mystical curiosity and splendor to transport me to gorgeous but fabricated locations. With obvious influences from masters of the genre: the elaborate and sensual Rococo style of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and the softness and visual depth of JMW Turner; LeMay has cultivated a sophisticated and perfect balance of the traditional landscape, yet her innovative techniques and confident presentations make her images decidedly modern. Coming to photography later in life, after a successful career working as a graphic artist and subsequently, after many years as an accomplished painter, LeMay combines these two areas of expertise in a painstaking and unique process she refers to as photo-fusion. Hundreds of photographs of flora, birds, tree limbs, flowers, and anything else she can imagine are taken and then carefully constructed into single compositions. Layer after fantastical layer are balanced in color, light and subject to create one-of-a-kind pieces that vibrate with an intensity often only experienced in dreams. As I make my way through the show, each stunning image outdoes its predecessor, radiating with color, density and awe – their glory unfolding in soft pastels and backgrounds that reach far into soft and dreamy hazes or full-bodied black abysses. LeMay’s images are as much a representation of the known as they are the creation of the unknown (this applies to both her aesthetic and her concept), and I am swiftly convinced that these luxurious places actually exist. Her prophetic depictions simply will not settle for anything less.
Reflection, one of the few diptychs on view, presents two birds ringed in gorgeous floras amid abundant vegetation. It is only upon closer inspection that I realize the birds are encapsulated in water, existing within a landscape that is then submerged on its head. Dandelion blooms and peacock feathers peek out from the layers of images as my eye continuously moves in a clockwise loop, round and round reminiscent of the cycles of the seasons, the passage of time, or the circle of life. It is a powerful exploration of the perfect unity and harmony of the world, both physical and spiritual — one appealing directly to Reason and the other to the Imagination.
The violent white waterfall at the center of Whispers, detail shown here, creates a semblance of nature that is more real than nature itself. Single leaves and branches, opulent flowers, and delicate bubbles bleed together to create a mystical and complex cavern. Tightly cropped, LeMay offers a stylized still depicting the plunge over the edge, but not the pool that inevitably gathers at the bottom. Each pre-supposes the other, but in this guided and forced perspective of nature, LeMay both discovers and encourages a mode of viewing that focuses on the endeavor and not the result. Our existence cannot (and should not) be separated from nature, for it is our reflection and understanding of the natural environment that keeps up from ever truly being lost. The power and divinity of water depicted here, is a profound reminder that nature is the infinitely connecting medium between the outer world and the human soul. And both are in constant and perpetual motion.
Like mirrored portholes, some of LeMay’s strongest compositions are her unique, utopian, circular still-lifes such as Archaeus. An interesting title, in alchemy, archaeus is a term used generally to refer to the lowest and most dense aspect of the astral plane that presides over the growth and continuation of all living beings. Philosophers referred to the archaeus as the segment where matter begins to transmute into spiritual energy, a gray area where a higher world blends into the vibrations of the physical world. LeMay presents this veritable Garden of Eden: opulent, sumptuous, and sexy, the very place indicative of the source of life, of beginning, and of abundance. Bursting flowers, seedpods, and sperm all vie for conception, contemporaneously and with sudden and fair exuberance. I can’t help but consider our acts of reproduction not only perpetuate our existence but are a perfect reflection of the moment when the physical crosses over to something altogether different.
American historian and ardent Romantic George Bancroft once noted, “Beauty itself is but the sensible image of the infinite.” This sentiment is captured in each of Lemay’s works. Metamorphose, a virtual explosion of flowers, is the true standout of the show for me. Intense and complicated, each flower clamors to come to the forefront before being drowned by the violent waters attacking from the bottom of the frame. LeMay hyper-realistically and expertly presents a virtual cornucopia of blooms with the same intense enthusiasm that accompanies every great truth nature reveals and every great discovery that the human spirit makes. This still life reflects a rich character willfully giving in to a higher phase of spirit, built from the enlightening aspects of the infinite found only outside ourselves.
Wonders displays LeMay’s dedication to the land and the endless beauty it evokes; surreal, convincing, and always full of life. But, it is apparent that her subject matter of the landscape is two-fold: it exists partly in the outer world of nature, and partly in the inner world of the spirit. LeMay expertly expresses not only what she sees before her, but also what she sees within herself. She confidently conjures realms and places I can never visit, but I believe they can exist. Whether mythological, actual, or spiritual, they are marvelous; and, indeed, wonders – just as the title suggests.
Suggested readings: Philosophy of Landscape Painting by William M. Bryant; The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle; The Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; The Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers