A record of place and mode of feeling … Hurvin Anderson, Limestone Wall, 2020.Photo: Richard Ivey./© Hurvin Anderson. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery.
Whenever I come across Ingrid Pollard’s conceptual photography, I feel, as a white British man, as if my landscape has been ripped from me. When Pollard looks at the English landscape, she sees the past in every hill and valley. A day on the beach is ruined for her by the fact that slave ships once crossed that sea.
If only she was included in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s gentle, somewhat aimless survey of Black landscape art now. It would certainly make for a more meaningful and conflicting experience. On the other hand, perhaps the show should have had room for additional works by Scottish-Barbadian artist Alberta Whittle. She has three paintings in Soulscapes: surreal tropical island circular scenes that make you smile. But in Whittle’s artistic output these are just moments of fun in a much more serious and expansive project. She maps the long shadow of slavery in installations of sunken houses and impromptu altars, videos and performances – a multitude of approaches to history and geography. Can you even call her landscape artwork?
Yes – but in the way artists have been doing it since the 1960s, with expanded, multifaceted, unrecognizable methods, from Richard Long walking the earth to Veronica Ryan spacing seed pods. To be fair, there is no room in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s slim slide of exhibition space for that kind of creativity; by the time you put in one upended tree, a third of the room would be gone.
But there are imaginative and physical limitations to this show. He is politically radical, but aesthetically conservative. And as a result, it’s not that politically radical either. Soulscapes is dominated by painting. Even the photographic and video works have a pictorial beauty. I am for painting but it is not easy to do it fresh and urgent.
Hurvin Anderson achieves this. In his Limestone Wall painting, a mysterious, decaying architectural creation is observed through lush plants and trees growing on it. As nature bathes the human fabric, Anderson invites you not to lose yourself in its captivating, overpowering colors. You are drawn into an emerald-hued mist that is spread over the surface of the paint in a humid autonomous riff. It is a dreamlike picture that crosses a boundary between landscape art as a record of place and as a vehicle of emotion: a soulful view if ever there was one.
But the quality of the other pictures here is not the same. That’s no surprise. Painting is so hard. One piece of work can look good for a minute or two, then start to fall apart in your mind until it’s just dried gunk on a wall. A large abstraction by Michaela Yearwood-Dan is too busy and hyperbolic to be moving or memorable. A dappled woodland by Alain Joséphine is relaxing to look at something the Sunday painter submitted to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, but completely bland.
Ah yes, the UK. That institution is currently defying its own history this August with its Entangled Pasts exhibition, which reveals the inescapable links to slavery in an institution founded in 1768. Dulwich Picture Gallery is almost as old, its collection assembled in the century British industrial revolution fueled by slave labor plantations and colonial commerce. Is that something Dulwich should tear itself to pieces? Well, he might at least have explored the consequences, in a show about race and landscape art.
The political history of landscape painting is explored in the Soulscapes catalogue, but the works on the wall do not challenge or challenge the classic examples in the main collection. One of these is Canaletto’s 1754 masterpiece A View of Walton Bridge featuring small bewigged figures, all white as far as I can see, fishing, boating, travelling. It’s a view of this pleasant green land that is screaming to be detached and taken down.
But Soulscapes hardly deals with the landscapes of Wales at all. Instead, he dreams of his time away in a lush tropical getaway. The effect is ultimately soporific. In the age of recycled images, visual art can so easily become obsolete. A landscape by Ravelle Pillay, its equatorial forest empty of people and reflected in still waters, exerts an inexorable force. But then I started to see former images of the jungle at the beginning of Apocalypse Now and even hear the whirring helicopters. Was I responding to the painting or to a pool of common images we all share? Worse than that, the way the water is painted began to remind me of the pastoral art of Peter O’Doug. That really got me. Unfathomable scenes, with Doig’s sense of appeal to this show: his strange images seem inevitable in a contemporary approach to landscape painting.
Too much here is hackneyed or sentimental, including an entire article called Joy. By being too tasteful, Soulscapes opens its arms to kitsch.
• Soulscapes is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from 14 February to 2 June