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“Jonathan Bucci & Elise Richman”

Although their Hudson River forerunners would have a hard time recognizing it, Jonathan Bucci and Elise Richman are both essentially landscape artists. With Bucci, the first hurdle would have been medium: He fabricates his sometimes room-filling environments from limp, oblong sheets of latex-and-silicone caulking compound. Richman uses oil on canvas, but she doesn’t paint so much as pile, creating sculptural columns of tiny, discrete beads of pure color. The result, as you might imagine, is hardly The Course of Empire.

Yet both artists’ work is, in one way or another, about the representation of place. And that can be a trickier business than it might seem. If Cézanne’s paintings, for example, were merely successful presentations of the facts—an uneasy sitter, a basket of apples, a hillside dotted with cottages—then there would be little point in looking at or talking about them. Bucci and Richman understand this, and in their current two-person show at Elizabeth Roberts Gallery, they have fun with the secret complexity of seeing and showing.

There are many cheeky asides here about the amount of verisimilitude required to conjure a sense of place, particularly in Bucci’s work, which is filled with what initially appear to be clunky, overstated gestures that fail to transform the materials used. A 1998 American University MFA, Bucci came to Roberts’ attention at, of all places, the sprawling, all-inclusive trash palace that is Art-O-Matic. It’s hard to imagine Bucci’s work succeeding in the riot of competing codes and materials that Art-O-Matic consistently provides: The three new pieces on view need uncluttered space and sympathetic company.

At first blush, Biscayne Bay looks like nothing more than a sly art-world joke: Three irregular quadrilaterals of semitransparent blue plastic bisect the room diagonally to form what resembles a backyard water slide. In this space, forms that look like half-deflated beach balls painted in random swirls of spin-art color—bright chemical greens, subdued blues and grays, and black—are anchored by rings of slippery pink plastic. Yes, this is an absurdist, cartoon homage to Christo’s iconic Surrounded Islands of 1983, in which the islands of Florida’s Biscayne Bay were wrapped with great floating swaths of pink material for two weeks.

Christo’s piece was itself a game played with representation and reality, and not merely because of the introduction of decidedly artificial materials into a natural environment. (As it turns out, the islands themselves were artificial—they had first appeared in the bay in the ’30s as random piles of byproduct from an Army Corps of Engineers dredging project.) The only way to see the whole 7-mile-long piece at once was either by aircraft or through one of the many print or television images taken from one. In one sense, Surrounded Islands was ultimately no place: In its entirety, it existed and was available primarily in secondhand reproductions of views from a considerable distance, and it entered art-historical consciousness accordingly.

The game of Bucci’s piece is of a slightly different sort. You can actually get as close as you’d like to the smooth tarp of his ocean, or to any of the slack bubbles that are his islands, but a detailed reconstruction of the original subject is not forthcoming. Bucci provides only the barest likeness of his subject, and the nonallusiveness is only heightened by his economy of means: Foundering and sagging, his sheets of compound are resolutely inert. Yet the ghost of Christo’s piece is irrefutably here. Bucci has not merely presented a likeness of Christo’s work, but has also created a metaphor for the way that work was experienced. It’s a clever bit of mischief—and one that very nearly makes its lack of immediacy seem like fun.

But despite the neat parallels of evasion Biscayne Bay provides, Linville Gorge, installed on the galley’s second floor, is the more compelling anti-environment. The work represents the 12-mile canyon formed by North Carolina’s Linville River, a real-world feature even larger than Surrounded Islands. This time, however, the representation is a good deal more meticulous. Bucci’s version of the gorge brings to mind a hobbyist’s railroad set: Among the glossy sheets of latex and silicone, the viewer might reasonably expect to find tiny trestles and tunnels.

The “river” juts abruptly out from the center of a blank wall; its waters consist of odd overlapping tongues of plastic in various shades of slate, cerulean, violet, and black, all with swirls of white recalling rapids but more closely resembling tie-dyed shirts. Puffy outlying plateaus are dotted by amoeba-shaped splotches of white that look something like cartoon thought balloons—wintertime snow, of course. The river winds between two lumpy mountain ranges and emerges into the delta of bare floor beyond, fanning out unceremoniously into cigar-shaped puddles of color.

The work insists on shorthand notations not entirely unlike those one might find in a topographical map or architectural model. It’s surprising how automatically the viewer can decipher this language and accept it as a complete representation. We shouldn’t be able to believe this as an absent place made present—even less so in the third and least satisfying of Bucci’s pieces, the emphatically nonspecific Untitled Land. But Bucci understands that likeness does not depend on particulars. In the history of rendering landscapes, the conceit of capturing a specific, fleeting moment of real-world experience is a surprisingly recent development, and Bucci manages to make an end run around it, mimicking instead extremely reductive nonart ways of cataloging the world. By plugging into the irreducible, he openly points to the magic trick of symbolic embodiment and defies the viewer to stop the trick from working.

Initially, the only parallel between Bucci’s pieces and Richman’s 12 works might seem to be surreally saturated color and an apparently industrial material—even though, in Richman’s case, the material turns out to be mere oil paint. In her artist’s statement, the Seattle-based artist—who, like Bucci, received an MFA from AU—claims that her approach stems from observing the complexity of the natural world, specifically in her garden. But this hardly explains all of the writhing, Technicolor gummy worms that populate her canvases. Richman is no neoimpressionist striving to capture all the transient color and fragility of a flowering lily, though it’s no accident that she works in the same medium.

In Blossom, a burst of yellow holds the center of a 12-inch square. In Garden, strange tactile projections, each one a stalagmite of segmented color, appear to be escaping from a small, square ground of magenta and blue, casting disconcerting shadows across the wall. The palette of Delphinium is reduced to cool blues dotted with hints of violet, and Richman’s supercharged stippling transforms the piece into something more akin to a conceptual representation of rainfall than the flower suggested by the title. Each of these works (all from 2003) presents itself as either a diffuse, all-over field or a series of glowing, concentric circles; though lovely, none are actually as complex as nature—or, for that matter, as the best of Richman’s art.

The most surprising of her pieces are upstairs with Linville Gorge, and they provide the most compelling link between her work and Bucci’s. For Colony II and Fortress II, both from 2004, Richman took photos of the surfaces of her own paintings, mounting the resulting digital prints on plexiglass. In each piece, the painting’s topography has been magnified and is seen from a sharp angle. The borders of each original are lost in these blown-up cross-sections, plunging the viewer into an alien, sugar-candy landscape, a domain of clown colors and swaying, translucent hilltops. It’s a satisfyingly confounding visual experience, but more important, Richman does here what she fails to do in the paintings themselves: She forces the viewer to see things her way. Her compositional decisions in her paintings impose a modernist objecthood on a traditional medium, sure, but her photographs create a strange new encounter with landscape—both the natural variety and the kind created by our ever-expanding visual culture.

“I don’t know where it is, but you’re just there,” a tourist was once heard confidently announcing while standing in a gallery of luminist canvases. This may well be Bucci and Richman’s ideal viewer: Both lay traps for those who hope to see and be certain. Both spin the physical facts of place into a web of cagey material metaphors, dimly remembered perceptions, and deliberate manipulations of point of view. You can’t hope to be “just there” in their art: The place it transports you to is elusive and conditional, and you’ll never know where it is by checking a map.CP