Painting the Clouds: Jane Wilson’s Weather Lasts Beyond Forecast

To the places that, over the course of time, have come to be associated with the work of certain American painters-think of John Marin’s Maine, Georgia O’ Keeffe’s Sante Fe, Jackson Pollock’s studio in Springs and Morris Graves’ in the Pacific Northwest-we may now add Jane Wilson’s Long Island. Or perhaps we should say the weather on Jane Wilson’s Long Island: The focus in her latest paintings-the subject of an enchanting exhibition at the D.C. Moore Gallery-is less topographical than meteorological.

The very titles read like a weatherman’s litany- Rain: Heavy at Times , Icy Light , Clouded Midnight , More Clouds Than Sun , Hurricane Rising , Gleaming Haze , etc.-and what’s depicted is less often the earth beneath our feet than the swiftly changing configuration of color and light that turns the skies overhead into a vast arena of pictorial challenges. The horizon lines in these paintings-where they’re more or less discernible-tend to lie along the bottom edge of the canvas, leaving an unbounded space to be explored and comprehended and transformed into a vivid pictorial subject.

No writer has been a better guide to the challenges of such a subject than the 19th-century English critic John Ruskin, whose epic study of art and nature in Modern Painters contains many passages appropriate to an understanding of Ms. Wilson’s sky paintings. Indeed, in Ruskin’s view, it’s the modern manner of painting clouds in the sky that marks a crucial departure from the conventions of earlier art.

Thus, in a chapter entitled “Of Modern Landscape,” Ruskin writes: “We turn our eyes from these serene fields and skies of medieval art, to the most characteristic examples of modern landscape. And I believe, the first thing that will strike us, or that ought to strike us, is their cloudiness .”

And further: “Out of perfect light and motionless air, we find ourselves on a sudden brought under somber skies, and into drifting wind; and, with fickle sunbeams flashing in our face, or utterly drenched with sweep of rain, we are reduced to track the changes of the shadows on the grass, or watch the rents of twilight through angry cloud. And we find that whereas all the pleasure of the medieval was in stability , definiteness , and luminousness , we are expected to rejoice in darkness, and triumph in mutability; to lay the foundation of happiness in things which momentarily change or fade; and to expect the utmost satisfaction and instruction from what it is impossible to arrest, and difficult to comprehend.”

In his summary of what he calls “modern cloud-worship,” Ruskin writes that “if a general and characteristic name were needed for modern landscape art, none better could be invented than ‘the service of clouds.’” Amazingly, Ruskin was a mere 24 years old when he published the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843, and the second volume was still to come. What inspired him in this formidable effort were the paintings of the English artist J.M.W. Turner, whose work is now firmly established as one of the classics of modern painting, but who, in his lifetime, was severely censured for the radicalism of his pictorial style. It was Ruskin’s defense of Turner, which runs to hundreds of pages, that launched Ruskin as a critic of immense distinction.

Jane Wilson’s paintings of cloudy skies are very different, of course, from Turner’s. They are less misty and, so to speak, more earth-bound, more comprehensible to us as fixtures of our common environment. There’s no suggestion of the Sublime that was so central to Turner’s vocation, but the role of memory-memories of nature and memories of paintings, including her own-is more emphatic. Also-dare it be said?-Ms. Wilson is a far greater colorist than Turner. Even in the darkest of her paintings, Nasty Weather (2004), there are feats of chromatic invention that are astonishing. In the most brilliant of her paintings, More Clouds Than Sun (2004), the golden light of the clouds against a gray-blue sky remains in one’s memory long after the viewer has left the premises.

Jane Wilson remains on view at the D.C. Moore Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, through Nov. 27.