Early landscape artists would paint realistic vistas to transport viewers to distant and exotic places. Contemporary artists like Audra Urquhart and Kevin Kelly, both exhibiting at the Individual Artists of Oklahoma Gallery through Jan. 10, 2010, use landscapes to represent mental terrain from dreams and consciousness.
Urquhart, an art teacher at Norman North High School, works with watercolor, pencil and oil paint to create otherworldly landscapes influenced by the flora of painter Georgia O'Keeffe and the merging of fantasy and reality in surrealism.
"I think my art has a feeling that you want to get into the painting and get lost in there," she said. "I want the viewer to feel their way through the picture. There's the water and color and plants that people can relate to, but at the same time, it's really abstract."
Botanic and organic shapes spiral and curl as if floating underwater. Sometimes fish appear, dodging through vivid colors in the background of "Aquatic" "? finned flourishes inspired by the neon tetras that Urquhart observes in her freshwater aquarium. Subjects like fish, waterfalls and roses were developed from her nearly 20 years working in education.
"I notice over the years in teaching high school that there are certain images that the students want to use a lot," she said. "I'm incorporating those images into my work, because there must be something people are really drawn to in them."
Urquhart is also inspired by music, particularly Miles Davis, and starts her pieces impulsively while listening to jazz. The resulting landscapes range from ethereal visions of the waterfalls and geysers at Yellowstone National Park to the darkness of a caving expedition. She also adds some of what she observes in her native environment.
"I think the colors that I use are very Oklahoma," she said. "This summer, I was down in Eufaula and I was just struck by the sunset. The colors of the lake and the beach are so much a part of the colors I choose in my work."
This is the first Oklahoma exhibit for Kevin Kelly, who teaches high school art in Wichita, Kan. He constructs landscapes that interpret the mundane "convenience food, the clutter of domestic life, and experiences at work" with dramatic mountains and highways.
"I think about mental interiors and mental landscapes, and how our brains jump from one thing to the next to the next as they try to problem solve their way through the world," he said. "I problem solve my way through my work in the same way."
Kelly starts each piece with a title, such as "KFC and Daily Medication" or "Microsoft Windows and Dirty Laundry," and explores the juxtaposition with a collage of pasted paper, acrylics, ink, watercolor, markers, pastels, oil paints and other media.
"I don't sketch anything out ahead of time when I'm working," he said. "I use the title as my sketch, and think about things that are very separate from each other and see how they collide."
He often spends months on a single piece, taking time to decide the next step in the free-flowing landscape as he works to keep his "brain bouncing around."
"When I entered into grad school, all my work was very much from observation, tight and clean drawings and paintings," he said. "Now it's become more fluid, much more abstract, with close observation of colors and textures, allowing the shapes to become abstract, and letting things flow into each other."
Like Urquhart, Kelly uses his teaching experience as inspiration, and embraces how it makes him think on his feet, solve problems and have flexible plans. Both artists show how the idea of a natural landscape can be merged with the interior landscape of mental experience.
"I think that what's really interesting in contemporary art is to always stay awake to the possibilities of what could be and what a painting can look like," Kelly said.
Audra Urquhart and Kevin Kelly's works display through Jan. 10, 2010 at Individual Artists of Oklahoma Gallery, 706 W. Sheridan.