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Donald Beal
Locating a Landscape: Donald Beal in Beech Forest, Winter

By Maura Coughlin

When the lushness of summer drains from the Beech Forest in Provincetown, a particular truth or beauty that was waiting there all along is exposed.

For Donald Beal, winter affords uncluttered time to engage with a landscape free from people and insects, and it offers startling revelations of formal structures that are usually hidden in the leaves. He remarks, "The light there in the winter is so peculiar, so specific to that place. There's this dead, silvery color--ghost branches standing out against screaming green moss. It's utterly unexpected, and always difficult to understand. It's shocking and inexhaustible--there's no easy way to comprehend it—and that's why I keep going back to it."

After several years of living in Provincetown and painting its immediately appealing vistas of limitless sand, sea, and sky, Beal looked for a different kind of landscape. Beech Forest is so much less sublime, much less easy to generalize: it shifts with every footstep and changes with the seasons. It was without an obvious horizon, focal point, or delineation between fore-, middle-, and background, and Beal found it endlessly challenging, demanding its own complex visual language.

His recent Beech Forest paintings are charged with temporality, offering tangential, fragmented visions rather than universal pronouncements on a nature that stands apart from lived time.

Many grapple with frozen violent relationship between fallen and leaning trunks, some represent formless sandbanks in the painting’s empty center, others negotiate abstract negative gaps in lattices of branches and sky. The result is a representation of the ever-shifting, transcendent experience that moving through this intimately known landscape conveys, a squinting of the inner eye, a re-framing or de-centering of the picture-worthy in the land.

Having located a specific, ocular language, Beal brings these formal problems back to his studio, as did all 19th-century landscape painters. Reinterpreting Emile Zola's definition of realism as "nature seen through a temperament," Beal's landscape are truly contemporary subjective responses to nature.

The tendency to paint individualistic, almost sentient trees in the romantic landscape tradition was described by Ruskin as the "pathetic fallacy," by which human feeling is attributed to inanimate objects.

One of Beal's largest canvases in the studio this winter featured a mad red tree trunk that thrusts through the center of the vertical canvas, splitting the distance in two. It emerged on the canvas, Beal says, "from an attempt to register a figure, or maybe from nothing at all, but then there was a red tree going up through the center of the painting and it reminded me of Rembrandt and Soutine's animal carcasses, of Titian's Flaying of Marsyas. These paintings rattle around in my head a lot--but I'm not sure there's any kind of narrative there."

Visceral and truncated, yet immobile, the tree has a weighty corporeality that does seem to invite these formal analogies. Beal's encrusted, painterly surfaces invite inevitable comparisons to Courbet and Cezanne who also localized their landscape practices in well-known landscapes.

Though the Beech Forest paintings evoke elements of traditional landscapes, they are simultaneously the products of a contemporary painter well-versed in modernist abstraction. Beal recently began introducing animal and figural presences within several Beech Forest paintings. The occasional dog, horse, or figure darts from the trees like shades of Pisanello. They came into the paintings to up the ante, to go beyond description of place or subjective vision.

Because Beal was wary of the narratives such figures would induce, they successfully maintain a strangely non-narrative presence, neither nostalgic nor polemic. The Beech Forest paintings are singular and compelling responses to Cape landscape that deny the easy pleasure of postcard seaside vistas.

They beg the question: why is there not a stronger landscape school in Provincetown? Given the community’s impressive painting legacy, one would expect a more vital and ongoing artistic dialogue and a greater sense of urgency in describing its land.

After periods of sustained looking and painting in the Beech Forest for a few winters, Beal occasionally returns to the shore with changed vision, one that makes him ask very different questions, painting the Atlantic as turbulent, turgid, whipped-up, and bruised: anything but a vacationer's paradise.

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MAURA COUGHLIN received a Ph.D. in art history from New York University. She lives part time in Wellfleet and teaches art history at MassArt and Tufts.

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