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Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014

The Idea of Landscapes

Marsha McDonald’s subtle images at TOCHI

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Sedate and tranquil, Marsha McDonald’s work is a reminder of the subtle ways landscape painting can both evoke the mysteries of the natural world and reveal our human vulnerabilities. Asian in composition and arrangement, her show at TOCHI (formerly Anaba Tea Room) includes two larger paintings and a series of small panels hung in a row. The little studies are separated by panels surfaced with copper leaf; like a necklace, they set up a rhythm alternating contemplation and relief from contemplation.

McDonald is a prodigious traveler, and her work conjures landscapes as near as the Lake Michigan shore and as far as Scandinavia and Japan. Her paintings contrast the world seen from a great distance—the horizon the only organizing principle as a cape of land extends into the sea—with that seen in muted detail: the leaves, branches, rills, earth, icicles that comprise the landscape itself. They are concrete objects and definite places, but treated as abstractions—dreams that melt on waking.

The vespery palette is intentionally limited, striving to manage the grandeur: muted whites, algae greens and browns. Smoke and haze and fog. Her forms, though easily recognizable, have soft edges, and are suggestive rather than descriptive. She is able to create with paint that familiar emptiness that seems to seep out of the earth itself in the moment just prior to sunset.

The small works are handled a bit unevenly, and the best of them are the most abstracted and universal. McDonald layers paint, scrapes and rubs it away, forging a contrast between the tranquil imagery and the attention and energy devoted to the paintings’ surfaces. Human hands struggle to convey the breadth of the natural world. Who can risk opening themselves up to such awe? Marsha McDonald paints the idea of landscapes as much as landscapes themselves, compressing all that wonder into a rough jewel you can hold in your hand.

McDonald’s works are on display through March 2, at TOCHI, 2107 E. Capitol Drive.