Contributed by Sharon Butler / At the beginning of the pandemic, when Jamie Madison‘s Bay Area studio was less accessible, she settled into her home studio in a rural area of Northern California and got a puppy. Behind her house lay the wild, oak-studded riparian woodland of Putah Creek, and in the front conventional orchards and farms stretched for miles. It was an uneasy mix of natural landscape and modern agriculture. Walking the dog became a meditative ritual that fostered a deep reverence for the systems of nature. But she also became aware of how modern agriculture’s muscular approach to land management can overlook the fragile interdependencies, requirements for renewal, and rhythms of nature.
In the heat of summer, trees were ripped out and replaced with more orchards, hundreds of acres laser-graded; as wildfires burned in the distance, dust filled the smoky sky. The landscape was reminiscent of the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, when the country’s breadbasket was transmogrified by over-farming and drought. If the natural world’s efforts to adapt inspire her awe, the seeming recklessness of orchard farming prompts her worry.
Back in her studio, where Madison works in the very early hours of the morning, the fraught coexistence of industry and nature on the surrounding land has fueled an evocative turn toward landscape imagery. Deftly composed, the paintings on view at Natsoulas Gallery sparkle with Madison?s touch, imparting the transitory nature of light, while simultaneously conveying the prospect of darkness. Like Swedish painter Mamma Andersson and Madison?s old teacher Wayne Thiebaud, her intention is not to translate the features she has apprehended visually, which she considers an endlessly fascinating puzzle, onto the canvas. Rather, she aims to create something kindred but synthetic and wholly new.
As she recollects the interaction of shapes, values, colors, and patterns, the observed landscape begins to fuse with an inner vison. To be sure, the hundreds of photos she takes during her walks inform her memory. But her imagination drives the process in the studio. ?I believe that the observations, the love, the angry dismay infuse the paintings,? she told me. ?They enter the paintings indirectly and unconsciously, but they are undeniably in the finished work.?
Madison?s focus is primarily on making, particularly on process and choice of materials. She often works on paper, sometimes collaging handmade monoprints onto acrylic paintings. The paint slides on easily, dries quickly, and, as she says, ?welcomes the next layer with open arms.? In creating work for this exhibition, Madison gravitated toward larger, sturdier formats, first wood panels, and then stretched linen. As she worked on the panels, hot pinks and bright reds began to emerge over the slick surfaces, a reflection of the orange sky of the distant wildfires. When she switched to oils on stretched linen, a softer, more forgiving surface, she encountered an unexpected shift: a cooler, soothing palette materialized. The compositions refocused from distant horizons to smaller details of the land ? puddles and woodland debris ? things that are nearby and underfoot, perhaps embedded in the earth itself. Madison?s striking paintings from the last eighteen months do not merely chronicle changes in the landscape but crystallize her reverence for the humming web of life that she has discovered in the flatlands. She is a witness to the landscape?s inexorable fragility in the face of industrial man?s epic battle against nature.
“Jamie Madison: Walking the Flatlands,” John Natsoulas Gallery, Davis, CA. January 12 to Feb 26, 2022.
NOTE: Sharon Butler originally wrote this essay for an exhibition catalogue that accompanied Jamie Madison’s show at John Natsoulas Gallery.