By Virginia Campbell
In the dubious and strictly unofficial competition over what element of a landscape is hardest to paint, Northern California artist Stock Schlueter claims the hands-down winner is trees. “Trees present so many problems,” he says. “A tree is solid, yet it’s not—it is filled with airy spaces, and you have to pull off the illusion of both those aspects.” Not that other aspects of landscape painting are much easier, of course. “Oil painting is an uncontrollable beast if you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Schlueter.
If Schlueter thinks trees are a tough visual subject, it could be that he knows them too well. Schlueter has lived most all of his six decades in Northern California, where his mother’s side of the family arrived by pack train in the late 1800s. He grew up in a small, rural town well north of San Francisco and what is now winery heaven. Surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful scenery, he spent so much time hiking, camping, and hunting that now when he goes off on a plein-air walkabout he doesn’t even pay attention to trails. As he puts it, “I’m a native in a temperate forest, and that’s helpful to me.”
With the support of scholarships in wrestling and football, Schlueter attended the University of Northern Colorado, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree. This oddball combination of jock and artist is distinctive and important: He brings the same high-energy, physical, competitive, analytical, and game-loving zest that animates participatory sports to his solitary interaction with the landscape as he faces down the challenges of rendering it in two dimensions.
Following the lead of his father, who came to the Northern California woods after World War II and made a career as a tree feller, Schlueter spent college summers working in the lumber industry. He has lived and worked so closely to the land that it precludes any form of throwback romantic views of nature. He’s seen both the corralling of nature, through levees and dikes and logging, and the ravages of these human encroachments—floods and erosion.
These experiences have left him with a point of view that’s free of the common contemporary habit of thought that sees any human stamp on nature as disfigurement. He finds “the combination of the natural world and land used for man’s purposes” to be the most compelling subject matter. That is, after all, what the world around him is like.
But it is the appearance of water rather than trees in Schlueter’s work that serves as the most eloquent measure of his perspective on the collision of the human and natural worlds. The area around Humboldt Bay, his home ground, is wet with marshes, sloughs, tide-pulsing deltas, and rivers that run more regularly over their banks than in them. There are also, notes the artist, “puddles that are bigger than lakes in most places.” Reflecting the fast-changing, saturated skies of California’s far north, these shifting bodies of water can take on bleak or exuberant moods, and the dynamic patterns they impose sporadically on the land play into the hand of a painter in love with compositional quirks.
“I prefer the compositional structure of modern art to the classic compositional formulas,” says the artist. What this amounts to is a modernist sensibility imposed on a traditional genre with a vastly practiced, unpoliticized eye. In LOLETA BOTTOMS ROAD, standing water from heavy rains has accumulated in the fields, with spindly lines of fence posts and a dirt road that recede dead center toward the horizon, which itself is centered on the canvas. It is, Schlueter points out, a scene both “bleak and serene,” a harmony of human and natural geometries. The interplay between the fenced-in squares and parallel ruts that mark human activity and the randomness of the giant puddles yields a telling picture of both natural and manmade order and disorder.
When Schlueter was in his 20s, he traded two paintings for a flat-bed Chevy truck that he converted into “a gypsy wagon” and took off to parts unknown for a brief interlude of painting away from his native land. Other than that, he has painted where he lives, watching and capturing a combination of radical change and no change at all with a disposition he describes as “neutral in most things.”
Over the last couple of years, Schlueter has deliberately retraced the ground of some of his earlier paintings. The venture has strengthened his long-held conviction that no intellectual concept can compete with plein-air painting for creating good pictures. “Some of the things I’m painting now, I simply couldn’t have painted the last time I was there,” he observes. In the intervening decades he has acquired more and subtler ways of capturing that fresh sensation of the eye moving over landscape. These days he’s more agile than ever at calculating how to create what he calls “the hook,” a visual strategy that, while acknowledging the fact that the human eye tends to focus on a spot about the size of a dime, seeks to lead the viewer on a journey that holds at least an echo of the fragrances, breezes, birdsongs, and bug bites present at the creation.
“I understood the mechanics and viscosity of paint by the time I was 13 years old,” says Schlueter. But the ability to create the kind of art he admires—“paintings that are not overworked; the ‘here’s the story’ simplicity of Robert Henri or Edward Hopper”—came within reach only after years of painting, which included other media and subject matter, even the surreal.
The notable confidence of Schlueter’s recent work is due not just to experience, but at least in part to a strong relationship with John Pence Gallery in San Francisco. “Back in the early ’80s I sent some slides to the gallery, not really knowing what I was doing,” Schlueter says. “But I sent these slides and a long cover letter explaining my life story. I got back a response that said, basically, we don’t want to represent your work at this point, but your story sure is interesting.”
Fifteen years later, Schlueter contacted the gallery again. “This time they wanted to see original paintings, and they ended up keeping four and selling them,” he says. The prestige and validation of that experience seems to have done nothing but good for Schlueter, and his revisits to previous sites to paint what was previously unpaintable have produced works of lovely boldness.
Schlueter and his wife, Rachel, live on the outskirts of Eureka, and she is a compatriot in his plein-air trekking. Schlueter does small paintings on location and takes photographs and makes color sketches for when he gets back to his studio. There he uses the studies as reference for his larger pieces, some up to 6 feet wide. His studio is in the arty Old Town section of Eureka.
Schlueter says he loves the city—not its quaintness but its industrial textures and scrappy asymmetries, which, while they send many nature lovers running for the hills, exist for him on a continuum of contemporary visual reality.
To his way of seeing, a fence post is no less beautiful than a water reed. A lineup of gas-guzzling four-wheelers is an elegant portrait, a machine shop full of shadows and tools is a tonalist elegy, and a railroad crossing is more nostalgic than a Pacific sunset. He has painted all these things and claims he’d “love to do a whole series of industrial nocturnes.” That sort of ambition is another expression of the creative impulse that makes his large painting JOHNSON RANCH WINTER, with its undecided sky, its distant barns, and its flooded field, such a majestically anti-majestic landscape. “I like the way things look,” he says, “no matter what they are.”
John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, CA; The Fairmont Gallery, Sonoma, CA; The Highlight Gallery, Mendocino, CA; Meridian Fine Art Gallery, Arcata, CA; www.stockschlueter.com.
Two-person show, Highland Art Center, Weaverville, CA, July 4-31.
Group show, The Fairmont Gallery, September 19-20.
Featured in June 2009