In Fresh, last spring's group show at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, two mesmerizing landscapes by Portland painter Adam Sorensen stood out as the best work of the exhibition. Eerily surreal and electric hued, they hardly seemed like landscapes in any traditional sense. Instead, it seemed Sorensen had painted imagined realms, suspended in some gray area between utopia and dystopia. With the oil paintings in The Glows, he continues to explore the haunting tableaus first teased at in Fresh. Though these newer works operate in the same way, he has largely shifted his palette from warm, Matisse-inspired reds to darker tones, casting a weighty gloominess on these natural scenes.
Each painting is, more or less, a variation of the landscape as painterly trope. Most contain two or three slender, leafless trees, sweeping hills, and a twilit sky. Within the boundaries of such repetitious subject matter, these paintings derive their essence from their formal values. Thus, the splotchy, paint-by-numbers application and neon palette inform the mood of the paintings more than what he actually paints. Rather than idyllic sites of serene desolation, his landscapes morph into post-apocalyptic settings, where, one imagines, nuclear fallout has led the vegetation to radiate in day-glow colors.
In "The Lumps," for instance, two barren trees emerge from a craggy island in a bog. The painting is dominated by sullen hues, with its black, shadowy foreground and drab, gray sky. But Sorensen's unreal palette illuminates the painting in unpredictably pleasing ways: luminous green snakes up a tree, a plant sprouts coral-pink leaves, and cloudy, lavender water encircles the island. "Northern" depicts a distinctly Pacific Northwestern scene: A single tree stands in a clear-cut landscape. Around the base of the tree, though, is a collection of pure white stones, a brilliant orange flower, and undulating swatches of green, yellow, and blue. In Sorensen's hands, this familiar natural setting becomes disorienting and estranged. A minimally painted tree stump now resembles a lunar crater and the forest floor appears closer to a kaleidoscopic tide pool than the dirt, twigs and needles one might expect.
Undoubtedly, it's Sorensen's skill as a colorist that makes these paintings so gorgeous. Particularly, the play between glow-in-the-dark tones and muted, neutral hues replaces the viewer's connection to these places with an intoxicating sense of displacement.