Albuquerque-based artist Jennifer Nehrbass paints idealized landscapes to challenge ideas of what is real.
At times, nature can seem like an abstract notion, a concept or construct more so than a physical realm. At others, ideas of what nature is (or isn’t) are inextricable from our everyday realities.
With her newest series Punk Mountain, Albuquerque-based artist Jennifer Nehrbass addresses perceptions of nature, creating paintings of high-chroma abstracted landscapes in tenuous balance. Her perfectly cropped, idealized, endless vistas of snow-capped mountains, deep green valleys, and color-ribbed rivers, all under a sublimely complementary sky, challenge ideas of what is natural, what is real.
“When I look at someone’s Instagram feed and see the landscape photos they’ve taken of a place they’ve visited, the image is perfect because it’s been adjusted by filters,” says Nehrbass. “But we’ve all had that experience of trying to take an image and can’t get the shot—maybe the weather isn’t right, or maybe there are too many people around. So I thought it’d be interesting to create the ‘perfect’ environment for people, one that doesn’t exist anywhere else, even though it’s not ‘real.’ But who’s to say what’s real?”
To create those environments, Nehrbass starts on a small scale by creating digital and physical collages from pop culture and historical source images, embracing ambiguity, realism, and fantasy as well as graphic design. In her translation to the final large paintings on canvas, she combines extreme perspectives with loose gestural marks and solid blocks of color.
Having spent almost thirty years as a practicing artist on the East Coast and out West, Nehrbass has developed a keen understanding of how visual and psychological space are shaped by formal considerations, as well as an exceptional proficiency with hyperrealism. Studying fine art and textile design, she received art degrees from the University of Wisconsin, New York University, and the University of New Mexico, and spent a formative decade working at Ralph Lauren.
When she graduated with her MFA from UNM, her class published an exhibition catalog which she sent out to galleries and museums around the country. Artist and curator Max Presneill (who, at the time, was director at Mark Moore Gallery) gave Nehrbass a show at the now-defunct Culver City, California gallery in 2007, essentially helping to launch her career. Today, she is represented by Brunnhofer Gallery in Linz, Austria, Julie Nester Gallery in Park City, Utah, Visions West in Denver, and Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque.
Her depiction of landscape is guided by an understanding of how someone’s eye travels through pictorial space: foreground, middleground, background. She’s ramped up the color temperatures and intensified her stylized approach for Punk Mountain, coaxing different painting techniques to play well with each other.
“How do I want the painting to work? How do I want someone’s eye to move through the painting?” she asks. “Compositionally, my paintings deal with formal ideas. Usually, there is some kind of circular movement for your eye to follow. And then it’s about the temperature and stylization, and that’s when I let my painting language take over.”
For example, in Meandering Gateway, a ravine is flanked by ominous mountain peaks and ranges, simultaneously leading our eye into the background yet also blocking our view. As the sun blasts one side of a mountain, striated waterfalls flow into a snaking river, the surface of which tests the limits of reflection. A seemingly well-rendered ridge of tree-filled pockets melts into a slurry of color and form.
In Golden Hour, Nehrbass plays with distance and planes, delineating the harsh, jagged, elements of the desert with deep yellow-amber light. Painted Sky and Rainbow Lake push the abstract elements of landscape through blown-out pastels and mottled mountains against lakes of graphic gradients.
Some readers may be familiar with Nehrbass’s earlier paintings in which she incorporated women in the landscape or other environments, or as collaged and abstracted portraits. These works, including her Pioneer Project series, take the perspectives and experiences of women as paramount.
For the Punk Mountain scenes, she chose to focus solely on the landscape itself. “With a figure, it becomes about what that figure is doing in the environment, rather than about the environment itself,” she says.
Even still, Nehrbass plays with assumptions, knowing that the viewer will inevitably project themselves into the scene. And by painting landscapes with portrait-like parameters—primarily vertical or telescopically circular—she creates another way for us to consider our relationship to landscapes. And, as she explains in her artist statement, “In the time of climate crises these idealized landscapes may present to future viewers a skewed version of past environments.”
Nehrbass has also recently extended these ideas to Cairns, a series of new sculptures made of discarded or castoff pieces of wood that she paints or stains, then stacks. By testing the limits of visual and physical balance, she again uses formal means to prompt us to consider human nature, our actions relative to the people and practices around us.