Mia Rosenthal's new series, "American Landscapes," charmingly documents both the aquatic and terrestrial life of everything from birds, butterflies, reptiles and fish to mammals to plants of the Hudson River Valley. While her work references images that are part of the Hudson River School canon, it also renders familiar images fresh, unique and intriguing. In effect Rosenthal gives the viewer something simultaneously new and traditional to enjoy and study.
The "bones" of Rosenthal's drawings trace the lines of actual paintings by familiar artists such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt. In Rosenthal's conception, the well-known mountains, trees and streams of these paintings frame a multitude of whimsical little drawings of flora and fauna. Sometimes they're layered densely for texture, and sometimes they're rendered in flat space with fewer and more readily discernible creatures.
Since all the creatures and plant life in Rosenthal's drawings are indigenous to the Hudson River Valley, a close examination— preferably with a magnifying glass— yields a science lesson as well as aesthetic pleasure
Viewed from a distance, however, the drawings have a flat quality that's more reminiscent of Chinese painting than of the typical Hudson River School. Rosenthal's technique of layering her mini-drawings precludes the modeling of space through the use of color in the way that a Hudson River School artist might. Space in these relatively flat drawings is rendered by varying density of lines rather than by modeling color.
In this way Rosenthal's technique becomes the metaphor for the cycle of the natural world. A heavy pile of fish becomes fish compost!
"American Landscapes" reminds me of Alan Watts's comment in Zen and the Beat Way: "Some Chinese painters like to let everything go wild. But the ideal they are aiming at— and you have to be a tremendous master to achieve it— is to let everything go wild within limits, to create the situation that is orderly overall but allows unexpected, random surprises."
Discovering "American Landscapes" is precisely that sort of random and wholly unexpected pleasure.