ART REVIEW: The soft-edged lay of the land

"Palm Sunset"

"Palm Sunset"

"Jenny Lake Morning"

"Jenny Lake Morning"


Landscape artists who decide to work with pastels are dealing with an in-between medium of special qualities and special challenges.  With the softened edges and unique blends of its color palette, pastels exist somewhere between the watery fluidity of watercolor and the sturdier materiality of oils and acrylic paint.  

Count Ann Sanders as one of those inspired pastel artists with an apparent hot line to the muse. As seen in an impressive show at the Arts Fund Gallery, Sanders brings a sensitivity to light, land and atmosphere, using her medium to its fullest. She brings something fresh and also unpretentiously nature-worshipping in her plein air works, some created in the south of France but mostly in the south of California -- within easy access for Santa Barbarans seeking a fix of nature.  

While Santa Barbara's landscape artist community is a populous one, few have gone the pastel route. In the acclaimed "Oak Group" of artists, recently with work gone public at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Central Library, only Glenna Hartmann and Chris Chapman have looked to pastels, surrounded on all sides by oil painters and water colorists.  

In effect, pastel is an acquired taste and an acquired passion, and Sanders appears to have fully acquired it. Some of the more appealing works here were done in areas we are well-familiar with, but they are given an exotic spin through the artist's careful framing and perception.  

"San Marcos Foothills" is all rolling, intersecting planes of fields and framed by oaks and eucalyptus trees, with no sign of humanity or development in sight (yet).  

A dreamy image of the Douglas Family Preserve (still known fondly as the "Wilcox Property" to longtime Santa Barbarans) is positively idyllic, with its shade-casting canopy of trees on a cliff overlooking the Pacific below and beyond.  

Similarly, "Carpinteria Salt Marsh" is an Arcadian-like vista we have trouble associating with its proximity to the 101 and the former home of the jumbo Santa Claus effigy. Undulant patchworks of colors and marshlands suggest a 19th century French landscape painting and the thumbprint of God.  

One of the stronger images in the show is "Palm Sunset," certainly a common subject for artists in this be-palmed beach town. But Sanders depicts the tall, iconic trees connecting land and sky, and in the dramatizing, waning light of sunset. More shadow play, on European turf, enlivens the compositions in "Provence Shadows" and "Vauvenargues."  

Moving to another corner of the globe and another time of day, her piece "Jenny Lake Morning" captures the brittle morning light of the Sierras.  

And in a rare, fleeting appearance of man's handiwork and evidence that we're not in the 19th century, "Red Tractor" depicts said subject as a funky little afterthought in a painting otherwise celebrating the spread of rich farmland and arboreal waves of dark green.  

Defying the dismissive stereotype of what the pastel medium is capable of, Sanders finds ways of investing mystery and awe in her field reports from encounters with mother nature.