The best thing about Russell Chatham’s lithography is precariously close to being the worst thing: the artist’s skill at capturing the visual phenomena of the western landscape—particularly meteorological phenomena—in his work. The best thing is that there probably isn’t a better living western artist than Chatham when it comes painting the delicate curtains of rain that hang from a thunderstorm viewed at some remove, or the diffusion of low clinging clouds against slopes of evergreen trees. The worst thing, and it’s not even very bad as far as worst things go, is that these elements sometimes come off as gimmicks— carefully-cultivated moments de resistance to stand out as extra-special against everything else that the artist is so awful damned good at.
Livingston resident Chatham, who has been creating lithographs of Montana landscapes since the ’70s, is hardly a rigorous practitioner of monistic ensemble, in which all components function with equal importance in a work. It’s often one or two features of a Chatham lithograph that draw the eye, and then generally to the background first. As appealing as those features can be, they tend to confer a lesser importance on other components of the painting, making them secondary to the one thing—the gimmick, if you like—that you find yourself marveling at for its strikingly lifelike quality. When the balance tips too far toward this special something, the difference between Chatham’s work and the work of artists who specialize in translucent-green-of-late-afternoon-sun-shining-through-breakers or snow-falling-around-the-cheerful-lights-of-cozy-country-cottages becomes, frankly, a commercial one: the difference between Chatham’s limited editions and mass-produced prints for shopping mall print stores.
It’s a paradoxical arrangement: the keener Chatham’s eye for natural phenomena occurring on certain planes in the lithograph, the more the rest of the composition stands to suffer for it. Happily, the greater number of works in Russell Chatham: Light, Land and Water, the exhibit currently on display at the Art Museum of Missoula, show his specialized talents matched against each other in twos and threes, with each individual aspect serving to restrain the other parts and present a balanced ensemble, instead of merely stealing your immediate and lingering attention.
In some works, such as “Missouri Headwaters: July,” the two parts of a Chatham dyad actually complement each other through reflection and even diminution of one by the other. “Missouri Headwaters: July” and “Island Suite: Harbor of Evening” (not, apparently, a Montana landscape) are good examples of this, with the delicate streaks of peach and chartreuse sunset reflected and intensified on the surface of still water. In each litho, it’s essentially one eye-grabbing component paired off against itself in a gentle isometric balance.
In “Fall Near Deadman’s Gulch,” the grab factor is divided more or less equally between two different elements: a stand of yellow aspen and a sandstone bluff rising against the background. The aspens on the ridgeline, backlit by a setting sun, glow ostentatiously but are counterbalanced by the warm blush of afternoon light on the sandstone face. A neat thing about Chatham’s landscapes, and one that’s especially evident in “Fall Near Deadman’s Gulch,” is that if you’ve ever lived in Montana west of the Divide, you can tell to the hour and often practically to the minute the time of day the scenes exist in Chatham’s memory.
The “curtain of rain” effect mentioned above is visible in three lithographs in the exhibit. Though largely governed by this effect, “Storm Over Bridger Mountain” and “Sweet Grass Spring Evening” also leave room for Chatham’s talent at painting Montana rivers exactly as they often look from afar: not like rivers at all, but like pack-train columns of huddled cottonwoods snaking across wide basins. It’s a gratifying touch when so many Montana rivers are painted head-on either up or down—from a fly-fisherman’s point of view, basically. There’s something less universally riverine and more distinctively eastern Montana about rivers painted like this, especially when they’re painted a mile at a time from a mile away.
Several of the works, in fact, viewed from a good distance themselves, look more like early color postcards or plates from some 1940s book of color landscape photography—probably owing to the composite process of creating each lithograph.
The “cloak of clouds” effect that can be seen in at least two of the lithos is much subtler than the “sheet of rain.” It’s also something that lends itself nicely to the micro-blotchy lithograph process, which relies primarily on the mutual repellence of oil and water to create layered images. “Mount Delano in Late Winter” is the best example of the gradual diffusion and tonal variation, where dark evergreens meet light gray snow clouds on wooded slopes. “Snowfall in the Castle Mountains” shows much the same thing, only with patches of red osier dogwood looming like islands in the snow of the foreground. Like the riparian cottonwoods, the red-stemmed dogwood clumps complete a chord that fairly thrums with Montana memory.
Light, Land and Water is pretty much right on in name and content. Only one litho in the group seems not to belong to the exhibit (which also includes ten rarely-exhibited oil paintings), and it’s the 1986 work “Missouri Headwaters: August.” The garish orange glare of the landscape doesn’t fit into the context supplied by the other works. It’s a bit too Expressionistic. But then again, maybe I just don’t recall the brief window—perhaps a minute—when it happened.
Russell Chatham: Light, Land and Water is up through the end of December at the Art Museum of Missoula. Call 728-0447 for more information.