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The new horizons of landscape painting

Contemporary landscape artists are defying conventions and the laws of nature

Between 1974 and 1977, Anselm Kiefer painted a book of watercolours – Transition from Cool to Warm – of seascapes morphing into orange female nudes. It broadened the definition of what landscape painting could be, and what we expect such images to portray.

An exhibition at Gagosian’s sister gallery on West 21st Street in New York is showing more than 40 of Kiefer’s sketchbooks and new watercolours until 14 July, marking the artist’s return to the medium. A collection of sometimes dreamy, sometimes moody landscapes will be displayed alongside.

The standards set in place by the likes of Claude Lorrain’s hazy Baroque visions, John Constable’s early Romanticism, and Claude Monet’s Impressionist works still remain, but the landscape genre has moved far beyond the territory of literal depiction and aesthetic showmanship.

Sarah Adams has been based on north Cornwall’s coast for 12 years, where rock formations such as caves and natural arches inform her paintings. “I’m interested in the parts of the coast I can get to on really good low tides, which are normally underwater,” she says. Adams works with a sketchbook or portable easel, taking them back to her studio to continue.

“I don’t want to paint like they did 200 years ago, even though the processes are the same – and I don’t think one can. We are products of our age. However traditional one’s work may look, you’re still in and of your time. “I think landscape painting tends to be slightly overlooked because it isn’t as cutting edge,” says Adams, who is represented by Maas Gallery. “But it’s about the spaces that we inhabit, so it’s always going to be relevant.”

“Landscape gives a connection to everyday human life, and depicts something that lasts forever”

A trio of contemporary artists, all represented by White Cube, is enough to demonstrate the breadth and freedom of expression that has made it increasingly difficult for landscapes to be thought of as a straightforward artistic ‘category’. The most recent canvasses by the gallery’s 92-year-old Lebanese-American artist Etel Adnan are landscapes painted from her memories of Beirut and California, simplified into large shapes in bold block colours. Kenya-born Michael Armitage draws deeply on his East African heritage, working in earthy shades on traditional Ugandan bark cloth. Meanwhile, Raqib Shaw’s fantastically detailed paintings borrow much from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.

His vibrant, hedonistic visions are created using metallic industrial paints with a porcupine quill, enamel and gold embossing. “Landscapes in the past tended to look back on a golden age, whereas today’s artists are engaged with it in a completely new way, particularly if we look at the urban landscape,” says Christie’s post-war and contemporary specialist Paola Saracino Fendi.

“Viewers can be very drawn to figurative approaches at a time when conceptual and abstract art can be distancing,” she continues. “Landscape gives a connection to everyday human life, and depicts something that lasts forever.”

At Waterhouse Dodd, British artist Juliette Losq’s urban watercolours are built up in hyperreal layers of paint, as if an etching – much at odds with the abused, littered landscapes that she focuses on. Her graffitied riversides and desperately overgrown green spaces are equally at odds with the idyllic imagery we are used to, and challenge the often sad impact of humankind on nature.

Modern mediums have also affected the type of landscapes that artists are able to portray, as well as how they are able to do so. Two of the works currently for sale at Lyndsey Ingram are landscapes from 2011 by David Hockney, painted on his iPad but printed on paper. Working digitally, Hockney is free from overworking a canvas with too much paint; the colours are vivid (plausible but not necessarily true to life), and lines are heavily layered without smudging.

The advent of photography – and the ease with which we can now travel the globe – has allowed artists to capture the world’s farthest reaches. Dutch photographer Scarlett Hooft Graafland visits as diverse destinations as possible, “to show the beauty of nature all over the world”. Her photographs – taken in analogue and printed from the negatives – can be found at Flowers Gallery.

Hooft Graafland searches for empty landscapes that are almost abstract in themselves, then adds people or objects to create surreal visions. A woman might emerge from a mound of ice, in the middle of a glacier; a sun made of bananas might be laid out in front of a mountain peak. Human figures are often minuscule in her work, emphasising the vastness of the surrounding landscape.

“It’s the power of nature that really fascinates me,” she says. “In Holland, where I’m from, everything is very cultivated and all the landscapes are designed. I love to go to places where you can feel the roughness.” After researching her destination, she then spends a month or two there, sourcing a team who can assist her on the ground – often local artists, finding ways to communicate with them. “I try to respond to the cultural traditions of a place, in a way that’s playful but also says something about the life of the people who live there.”

The relationship between man and nature is central to the work of Israeli photographer Ori Gersht. “Landscapes have existed for millions of years, but whenever I intervene through my work, I come with my baggage as a human being,” he says. “In all my work I’m interested in the tension between the two.

“I always find it difficult to photograph people. There’s something very intrusive about photography... it’s incredibly intimate. But there’s something about landscapes that liberates me.” Gersht’s most recent body of work, Floating World, is inspired by reflecting ponds in Japanese zen gardens. The painterly photographs explore where reality starts and finishes – a pertinent concept for our modern world, where images can dominate perceptions of reality so much that they become more than just a visual representation of the world.

“I try to create a fusion between the two worlds,” says the artist, whose work is at Ben Brown Fine Arts. “Melting the boundaries into one another so that the viewer can no longer distinguish which is which. Photography was often used as historical evidence, but I’m interested in creating photographs that question and create places of uncertainty.”

As with Kiefer’s Transition from Cool to Warm, contemporary landscapes are often as much to do with portraiture: artists being drawn to put more of themselves into their work, and to comment – not always kindly – on humanity.