The landscape paintings of Tula Telfair, at Goucher, are immediately arresting and sustain short-term interest by addressing questions related to art and reality. But ultimately they leave the impression of being artificial exercises, too sophisticated for their own good.
The most common Telfair painting in this show of 11 recent works consists partly of horizontal bands of landscape, which suggest scenes from a journey or episodes from a narrative. They look as if they ought to tell a story, but the story remains elusive. Telfair emphasizes the elusiveness by the hazy, shadowy look of these pictures, as if glimpsed in memory through the veil of time.
The landscape bands are interspersed with, and/or bordered by, bands of solid-color paint, which exist as integral parts of the painting rather than merely as separating or framing elements. These have multiple functions.
At times a band of color will separate a lower image of landscape from an upper one of pure sky, as in the painting titled "Strategy of Indifference." This leads to thoughts about the nature of reality and the senses. Ordinarily we perceive reality through our senses, and the ultimate sense is touch. Is the land, which can be touched, any more real than the sky, which cannot? And what do we mean when we say that something is real? Do we mean that it can be sensed, or simply that it exists?
Many -- perhaps all -- of the solid-color bands reproduce or approximate colors to be found in the landscape bands, a device especially obvious in the blue and pink strips of "Power Changes Direction." Here Telfair addresses the relationship between representation and abstraction, for the color of a solid-color abstract painting reproduces the color of something out there in the world and so it is in a sense representational. Besides, the same means are used to make a landscape as to make a band of blue -- pigment, brush, the action of the hand.
Telfair's titles reinforce her intellectual approach. "Between Sensuality and a Search for Rigor" asks which more closely pertains to a traditional landscape and which to an abstract discipline such as minimalism. Can a landscape be as sensual as a strip of color and a strip of color as rigorous as a landscape, and vice versa?
The trouble with these paintings is that finally they don't exist convincingly outside of the issues and questions they raise. As visual images, their appeal is fleeting. They never quite look like real landscapes, and while they try hard to be beautiful and mysterious, they do so by using a small repertoire of the same effects over and over. Soon they seem repetitious, contrived and over-intellectual, with little or no emotional weight.
But it must be acknowledged that Telfair is a highly accomplished painter who does what she does very well.
'HOLDING THE HORIZON'
What: Paintings of Tula Telfair
Where: Rosenberg Gallery, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and evening and weekend hours when events are scheduled in Kraushaar Auditorium
$ Call: (410) 337-6333