Strange things await in the woods in Christopher Russell's oil paintings

When we head into the forest, we pack along our own personal mythologies. These influence whether we find trees inspiring or ominous, whether we expect to find babes or bears, fairies or foxes, in the bramble. The same can be said of the viewers heading into the art gallery: The conceptions we bring with us populate the art.

Christopher Russell's oil paintings, in his current show "You Are So Balanced; I Don't Want to Complicate Things," act as a kind of forested Rorschach test. He paints landscapes, scenes of wilderness at the timberline's fringe. Dusk-lit peaks rise above snowy plains, tree branches interlace, mountain lakes invite. A couple of things save Russell's paintings from Arcadian cliché. First, he paints in a slightly naive, rough-hewn style, which enlivens the lines. Second, he carries a set of symbols throughout the paintings that are both universal and particular enough for viewers to borrow as their own.

In the large (70 by 54 inches) oil-on-canvas work Switch Back, for example, a trail climbs down into and up out of a valley dotted with trees. The right half of the valley is spring green, the left a wintry brown. One evergreen in the middle arrests the eye, but what might be a simple scene is disrupted by an incongruous blue ribbon, which twists in and out of the trees and seems to float in midair. In Psychedelic Rock, an oil-on-paper work, similar ribbons float above a line of purple quartz, all superimposed on a peak cast against a starry sky. The peak rises like the roof of a temple, and the translucence of the layered images gives the grouping a visionary quality.

What's that ribbon doing there? Russell's painting Switch Back.
What's that ribbon doing there? Russell's painting Switch Back.

Even Tree Line, among the most traditional landscapes of the bunch, betrays strange elements. Here, a blue butte is seen through a bare-branched forest. Look closer, however, and small glowing dots begin to swarm. They could be gnats or snowflakes, stars or fairies, seeds or ash.

Then there are the pastel tones, which render many of the peaks as distinctly pink triangles. A desert scene titled Sun Dial features rainbow bands of color and a phallic stump. There are men floating in water, through reflected mountain ranges. The concentric rings of ripples in one painting become a rainbow around the moon in another. Unpack your baggage here, and the meanings abound.

Russell, who grew up in Boulder, Colo., cites prosaic inspiration for his themes. He likes the equipment used in camping and hiking, he says, and the ribbon came from sketch studies he was doing of the cables on his backpack. The ribbon swirling through Switch Back represents the flowing rhythm of a trail he bikes in Marin. He paints mountain peaks, he says, because they're the most potent of landscape symbols. "I was thinking about something that represents the feeling of reverence for the natural world," he says. "I've been working with a lot of different landscapes for a while, but the really pointed mountains are the most iconographic."

Mountains are where the gods live, spatial symbols of aspiration to divinity. Paul Cézanne, whom Russell cites as a primary inspiration, spent years painting Mont Sainte-Victoire, trying to "realize sensations." It's clear that Russell could spend a lifetime, too, painting mountains and the sensations in nature. For a few moments at "You Are So Balanced," the rest of us can go along for the journey, carting our knapsacks of analysis.

 
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