"Rainbow, Conflagration" (2016) by Becca Kallem
"Rainbow, Conflagration" (2016) by Becca Kallem

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The poetic title to a small gallery exhibit at the Arlington Arts Center offers a big hint about the thinking behind it. “Light Wishes Only To Be Land,” a group painting show curated by resident artist Becca Kallem, takes landscape painting as its departure. This aphorism perverts the Impressionist-era maxim that the artist who paints landscapes paints light. It makes a lyrical claim over light itself, along the lines of the quote attributed to architect Louis Kahn: “The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.”

Each of the four artists who appear in the exhibit—Mike Dowley, Liz Guzman, Thomas Bunnell, and Kallem herself—makes competing claims about painting with their work. “Light Wishes Only To Be Land” isn’t a smarmy thesis show, though. It’s an indulgent painting show, one that unapologetically celebrates landscape as a mode for discussing form, identity, and other possibilities. “Light Wishes Only To Be Land” is also a conservative show, in the richest sense of the word.

All four artists stick to acrylic or oil, although Guzman’s paintings appear to include some different applications, including spray paint. Her paintings are the most mischievous of the bunch: The landscape that she explores might be the tweenage worlds of young millennial women. Her palette is inspired by Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, a seapunk motif as popular in 2016 as it was in 1985. Guzman has stripped the vaporwave aesthetic down to its elements. Swirling pink and purple sunsets framed by vivid fronds of ferns are the essentials for her settings.

In “Esos Besos” (2016), Guzman’s painting depicts a creamy sky seen from a perch within what might be a grotto or lagoon. Through a cavelike entrance graced by tropical ferns, the words “esos besos” appear in the sky, whispered in clouds, barely there. Guzman is winking at the viewer, plainly, but she’s serious about her paintings, too; the way she renders the frames for her sunsets from painting to painting is almost conventional, a square-within-a-square strategy a la Josef Albers or Mark Rothko. Guzman is taking the stuff of girlhood as seriously as those artists took their mythic source material.

Dowley might be the artist of this bunch who is the most deeply enamored with painting. His landscapes are impasto paintings so thick that they look as though he’s squeezed the tube directly onto his canvas and left the paint to dry. In an era of so-called zombie formalism, this kind of expressive painting isn’t especially typical. One of Dowley’s untitled paintings (2016) looks like a direct quotation from Cézanne’s series on Mont Sainte-Victoire—but rendered in a wholly different style. While Dowley’s paintings aren’t trendy, they are evocative, especially for their small scale. One painting of a bridge features an unconvincing mishmash of greens and grays, but his paintings are otherwise tonally balanced.

Kallem has included her own works as anchors for the show. She tends to work at a small scale, and her paintings for this show are no exception: the largest is a 9.5” by 11” panel. Her contributions include two pairs of sketches, “Rainbow Sketch I & II” and “Sign Over the Sky I & II” (all 2016), and these help to establish the rhythm of the show. They look like they were made for this show specifically, in fact. In other exhibitions, Kallem has often showed a lot of little paintings at once, building up a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. Kallem’s ideas simply take up lots more canvas than she’s assigned herself in this show. Here, she is contributing only snippets of thoughts.

Bunnell’s abstractions barely register as landscapes at all. His paintings emphasize composition over brushstroke or content. They borrow an electric palette favored by the likes of Amy Sillman, Dana Schutz, or Katherine Bernhardt, the brash painters of the 2000s. Bunnell’s paintings are more earnest than those, though. “Soft Serve” (2015), maybe the coolest and calmest in the show, and it reads like a color study. It’s fresh but also casual.

“Light Wishes Only To Be Land” is a steady show, an even survey of new works by artists devoted to the format. It’s a painter’s painting show, although to say that is to risk suggesting that it succeeds specifically by its traditionalism. It’s too easy to take painting for granted; none of these artists does. 

At the Arlington Arts Center to Oct. 2. 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Free. (703) 248-6800. arlingtonartscenter.org.