Image credit: Eden Chinn, All Street Gallery. 

Entering Landscapes: New Territory in a Familiar Form

A review of painter Aleksandra Dougal’s solo exhibition at all street gallery.

By Jingbo Luo


In various artistic mediums, there are genres designed to fade into the background. In music, there’s Muzak, meant to add ambience in transitory spaces and alleviate pressure in social situations. In film and television, Netflix openly admitted to producing content that audiences can enjoy without paying attention. This commentary is not meant to establish a hierarchy within art and media, but instead to highlight the artistic intention behind certain genres.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and actively consumed content that others disregard as background noise. Although I enjoy this media, I wouldn’t necessarily broadcast that fact. The stigma around certain content creates guilty pleasures and, in turn, a void in art critique between what’s actually popular and what’s culturally necessary to impress at a dinner party.

In visual art, however, there are pockets of contradiction regarding what can be considered a “guilty pleasure.” For instance, landscapes are widely accepted as fine art, but if you were to tell someone that your favorite genre is “landscapes,” they’d probably think you were boring, or a Boomer who’s aging extremely well. In most art museums, you’re bound to stumble into a room with ornate gold frames containing detailed and masterful landscapes by long-dead white men rocking three very strong names. In more mundane settings, landscapes are displayed to visually elevate a space without disruption. Most of these works are undeniably technically impressive. The skill involved in their production is representative of countless hours spent honing one’s craft. Such detail-oriented work deserves aesthetic admiration, and the large archive of works in this prominent genre indicates what we value culturally. However, if we’re being honest, they’re mad boring. Perhaps it’s the genre’s oversaturation in cultural institutions, making us see these works again and again until they become almost unnoticeable. Or maybe it was Bob Ross giving away the keys on how to become a master.

Most canonical landscapes seem to have been made by Western artists deeply inspired by a blossoming country, bucolic scenes, and their own romanticization of people and lifestyles “closer” to nature, among other values closely aligned with imperialism and colonization. There’s certainly a respect for and appreciation of nature, yet there’s simultaneously a hint of unjust ownership claimed in the works, which are brimming with a perspective of inherent privilege. There is traditionally an aspect of voyeurism to the viewer's position of looking out from a vantage point rather than being immersed in the world they’re depicting. It’s a visual fetishization of the raw and untouched nature that colonizers were thirsting to conquer. I had completely disregarded the landscape genre as basic and rigid—until I saw the vast natural worlds the painter Aleksandra Dougal created in her solo exhibition, Entrance, at All Street Gallery’s 119 Hester Street location.

Dougal’s paintings utilize a level of abstraction that rejects the separation of the viewer and the viewed, positioning both nature and art not as things to consume, but as things to experience. The sheer size and detail in her work bring the viewer right into the scenes. With your attention transfixed, your mind reflexively tries to solve puzzles, desperately searching for a glimpse of recognition in the hauntingly commonplace scenes of American suburbia and nature. The longer you look, the deeper you go, and the more you begin to realize that you’re not necessarily in a known world, despite a sense of nostalgia and distant familiarity. The form is familiar, and that’s what invites the viewer in, but Dougal’s style is uniquely her own.

“Passages” by Aleksandra Dougal. Image credit: Eden Chinn, All Street Gallery. 

Dougal’s aptly named painting “Passages” depicts a dark road shrouded by trees and littered with vaguely human-shaped shadows. The figures within the painting are abstracted and devoid of distinguishing features, yet their presence creates a sense of movement inwards to the center of the piece, down the road. This lack of faces principally indicates that the figures have their backs toward the viewer and are walking away. This movement pushes the viewer’s attention toward the scenery, revealing it as the focus of the work. Contrasting the amorphous lines and color clusters of the human figures are delicately nuanced depictions of trees, houses, and other elements that make up the landscape. Dougal directly subverts convention through color, however, by dressing a single figure in the center of the frame in red. All the other “characters” exist in greyscale and could be disregarded as simple devices to provide scale for the other large fixtures of the painting. This solitary red character defiantly asserts their existence, giving the viewer a tether back to a real world that doesn’t exist on an idyllic street in every quiet town in America. 

It’s hard for me to imagine an emerging New York-based artist exposed to all the stimuli in the world choosing to work in such a traditional medium. On its face, one would assume Dougal’s practice provides an alternative to the hectic energy of the city. Yet her works are less of an external escape and more of an extension of the internal, with lines and figures continuously morphing and shapeshifting. Although she works in a two-dimensional medium, Dougal has crafted a participatory viewing experience. Passive viewing of her paintings is not possible. If you get the pleasure to see her work in person, an initial wave of surprise will likely hit you, and then a deep calm, followed by an impulse to identify every shadowy limb and melting color.

Every scene in Dougal’s paintings feels like a lost memory. Even now as I reflect upon the images, they continue to warp and bend in my mind, leaving me unsure of what I imagined and what was really there on the canvas. Her paintings exist between familiarity and distance, memory and dream, and imagination and reality. Despite these feelings of uncertainty, using the ubiquity of landscapes enables Dougal to inspire both serenity and curiosity.

Work by Aleksandra Dougal. Image credit: Eden Chinn, All Street Gallery.