Dusk at Wasatch, oil on canvas, 30" x 48" by Gary Ernest Smith

Oregon-born Gary Ernest Smith didn’t mean to send down roots in Utah. “I came to Utah as a student and didn’t intend to stay,” he says. But decades later, Smith is still here. “I was seduced by the landscape.”

Smith, a nationally known landscape artist, lives in a rolling wooded ravine near Highland where he has a panoramic northern view from his spacious studio. He points to the horizon, covered with tract houses. 

“None of that was there when I built this house,” he says. “It’ll look like Los Angeles out there before we know it.”

Smith’s work is notable for showing the hand of man upon the land—freshly plowed fields, a hogan nestled in a red rock canyon, farmers with gimme caps set against the mountains. But it’s obvious he doesn’t find the suburban explosion around him charming. Smith’s canvases, like Utah’s landscape, are big and they depict a detailed emptiness. Furrows in the mud of a field, dusted with snow, flow toward the horizon.

“When it comes to landscape, I search for the essence,” Smith says. “It’s about the all-encompassing. When you look to the details, you miss it."

Although many contemporary art critics and curators have pronounced painting “dead” and landscape painting even deader, artists like Smith—and Mark Knudsen and Scotty Mitchell and Trent Call—continue to find their inspirational wellspring in Utah’s red rocks, high mountains and miles of free and tilled fields. Phillips Gallery, the oldest gallery in the Intermountain West, shows contemporary art of all kinds: landscapes, figurative and abstract. “But a lot of what we sell is landscapes,” says Hadley Rampton, the gallery’s fine art consultant and an artist herself. She estimates half the gallery’s sales are landscapes. “There’s a tradition of landscape painting in the West and now you have a lot of different ways to paint a landscape. Landscapes can be representational but often they’re just the starting point, the inspiration.” 

Green River Residential, acrylic on panel by Mark Knudsen

Utah’s grip on artists’ imaginations is nothing new. Since the 1850s (and long before, if you include Anasazi pictographs) the canyons and mountains have compelled a response from artists like Thomas Moran, Everett Ruess, LeConte Stewart and Maynard Dixon. Many of the early landscape paintings were representational, but as Rampton points out, “Every artist sees and feels something different in a landscape and that comes through in the art.” Every painting shows the relation of the human to the landscape.

Early painters like Moran and Frederick Dellenbaugh were explorers as well artists; their depictions of the wonders of the West were instrumental in the creation of national parks. But the land compelled even early painters to try to convey more than just what they were looking at. “Bierstadt, for example, exaggerated everything,” says Donna Poulton, former curator of Art of the West at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. “The early artists didn’t just want you to know what it looked like—they wanted you to know what it felt like to be there.” Moran, she says, changed the scenery in his paintings to convey the feeling of claustrophobia in the Narrows of Zion. Maynard Dixon’s paintings show the “inherent modernism of the Utah landscape.” 

A young modern art curator recently complained that good contemporary art was hard to find in Utah because the overwhelming scenery turns everyone into landscape artists. 

The anecdote amuses Smith, but he agrees: “You cannot not be influenced by what you are seeing in Utah.” Still, he says, “Good landscape art is intellectual. You cannot be sensitive to your environment and not see the patterns” and “have a philosophic reaction to it.” Some artists’ paintings emphasize their reaction more than the landscape itself. Utah-born Doug Snow, successful in New York as a modern artist, retreated to Utah to create a unique abstract take on the land. Judges considered Snow’s powerful landscape Conflict and Resolution on the wall of the Utah Supreme Court so disturbing that they ordered it covered with a curtain during hearings.

Snow told another artist, “This place is it. Art in this country would be a more meaningful force if more artists took advantage of where they are planted.” 

Union Overpass, oil on canvas, 30" x 48" by Gary Ernest Smith

Poulton says the Utah landscape can be frustrating to modern artists because “it’s already abstracted.” She recalls that before Robert Smithson created Spiral Jetty, the legendary land artist flew in a small plane over Southern Utah searching for a place to make an artistic mark. He came back dejected, telling his wife, “It’s all so spectacular, there’s nothing for me to do.” In the end, he got over it to bulldoze 7,000 tons of black basalt into his iconic jetty, shaped in a spiral that echoes Anasazi pictographs.

The land had a similar impact on German surrealist Max Ernst. “If you look at Ernst’s normal work, it is so bizarre,” says Poulton. “But when he went to Bryce Canyon, he must have looked at this landscape and thought, ‘I can’t make this more abstract than it already is.’ He was forced—in spite of himself—to paint a representational painting.” 

Artist Mark Knudsen says, “The best of Western landscape painters don’t paint the desert because it is spectacular. They paint it because it is transcendent. The landscape of the West is, not just for artists but for many others as well, a key part of our existential answer. It is our passage to a world undivided.”

Rampton herself is an artist who has been seduced by the landscape. An avid plein air painter, she says that painting is always a three-way dialogue between the painter, the subject and the painting itself. The landscape has a lot to say. And, as Smith says, “It demands a response.” 

Back>>>Read other stories in our May/June 2014 issue.