For the last decade Cleveland-based Julie Langsam has created naturalistic paintings that depict high-modernist buildings set in empty landscapes. This show of her recent work continued to make use of that format: in each painting an isolated architectural icon—such as Saarinen’s TWA Terminal or Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel—is positioned against a background of lush, Hudson River School sky. To the lower portion of each work Langsam now adds a horizontal strip of hard-edge abstraction borrowed from Ad Reinhardt’s canvases of the 1950s. Each of these juxtaposed styles once carried a utopian dimension, an idealist drive to purge its subject of nonessential elements: whether through stripping evidence of industry and human population from landscapes, eliminating the nonfunctional decorative accretions of architectural history or purging figurative references from the canvas.
Langsam’s paintings take up and frame those Romantic and Modernist programs in a manner that superficially seems similar to the postmodern appropriation of historical styles, but her work evinces none of the cool irony of postmodern pastiche. Rather, the paintings seem wistful, if not nostalgic and elegiac, about the grand but unrealized vision those styles share: the transformation of society through art and architecture. The vast, looming, richly colored skies are rendered with a painterly ambition that is far from mere stylistic quotation. The spectral, insubstantial houses and buildings look forlorn and marooned in their infinite, inaccessible spaces. Rendered with a limited palette of grays and in three-quarter view, they appear like photographs in journals or archives of a bygone era. The horizontal strip of hard-edged squares borrowed from Reinhardt seems merely ornamental, without registering any of the sublimity or transcendence that characterized the originals.
While her paintings reflect on these historical styles, they are not simply conceptual exercises. Indeed, they evince a strong formalist and painterly sensibility. The color of the sky in each work, for example, is subtly adjusted to the hues of the Reinhardt pattern below. And the three forms of artistic representation are marked by radically discontinuous notions of space—vast and spiritually endowed in the skies, ordered and contained in the architecture, and shallow or purely pictorial in the abstraction. As with color and shape, Langsam seems committed to using these distinct spatial qualities as raw materials, and engages in a colloquy with the art-historical moments from which they emerge.