Michael Abrams: Arcadia Rediscovered

October 23, 2021 - March 5, 2022

Michael Abrams is known for misty, layered vistas suffused with light. His ability to capture atmospheric conditions imbues each painting with such tactility that the mist seems to extend between the painting and the viewer. Two years ago, I asked Abrams to embrace theatricality and three-dimensionality to create a painting that would surround the viewer.

The resulting installation is luminous. It glows from within, as though the light were gathering in real time as the viewer contemplates the scene. The vista is both sensuous and intellectual. Beneath its lustrous surface is a rich vein of cultural associations and ideas waiting to be discovered, mined, and processed.

Embedded in Abrams’s work is the Enlightenment era notion of the sublime, the twinned feelings of awe and terror we experience in the presence of great natural wonders—towering mountains, grand canyons, turbulent seas. The sublime evokes in the beholder an intense emotional state beyond aesthetic enjoyment. 

Today, this heightened state of exultation in the presence of Nature’s grandeur is transforming into sheer terror. Raging wildfires, storms increasing in magnitude and frequency, and once-verdant fields desiccated by drought are the images of our time.

John Muir writes in John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir:

Most people are on the world, not in it—have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them—undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.

Arcadia Rediscovered is a call to be in the world. To be in and of a rapidly failing ecosystem requires each of us to engage more deeply—personally, communally, and politically.

— Mara Williams, Chief Curator

This body of work revisits the 19th-century Arcadian tradition of landscape painting, which glorified manifest destiny. I bring to that tradition my profound respect for the natural world and my concern that we are on the verge of losing that world through our embrace of our dominance over nature. I invite viewers to experience nature as I see it—full of beauty, light, and atmosphere—and to share my trepidation about its survival. 

Combining a love of art history, images collected from nature, and an element of theater, Arcadia Rediscovered summons far-off scenes, diffused tree forms, and glints of light reflecting off distant waters, all suggesting a longing for that idyllic world.

The 19th-century Luminist landscape painters are among the strongest influences on my painting practice. These artists robustly and dramatically extolled the virtues of nature as man’s spiritual cathedral. Their ability to capture the breadth and scale of the natural world exemplified a sublime Arcadian ideal. Two of the most prominent painters of the genre, Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, were early advocates of conservation, having seen firsthand in their travels the effects of industry on what was, up until then, a pristine wilderness.

Since my move to Vermont more than a decade ago, I have embraced the local natural environment as an increasingly direct influence on my work. Daily observations in the Green Mountains have altered my perception and appreciation of our environment, its fragility, and our place in it. I am humbled by the abundantly varied vistas and their never-ending seasonal rebirth, by the striking physical character of the landscape, the unique qualities of the light, an atmosphere oscillating between crystal clear and thickly obscuring. These elements have become key in the story I am telling of my relationship with nature—a story that is perhaps most concerned with our letting go of the illusion that we can determine its destiny. While nature is enduring, our experience of it is but a fleeting moment.

— Michael Abrams


January 6, Thursday, 7 p.m. — Artist Talk: Michael Abrams


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