The Romantic landscape is a subject that has sparked the imagination for generations, from John Constable’s nostalgic visions to Turner’s overwhelming sublime to Church’s luscious portraits of the divine wilderness. Through these images of nature, the artists also evoked issues of identity, nationalism and a nascent 19th-century environmentalism. At first glance, New York-based Amy Bennett follows in the Arcadian tradition with her neat rows of suburban homes nestled into lush green hills and valleys. But don’t get too comfortable; it only takes a moment to realize all is not what it seems. The homes and shops, a little too perfect, exude a sort of Stepfordian cubic dystopia. And there’s another glitch, the paintings are not based on life but on the artist’s own handmade fiction. For this series, nearly four years in the making, Bennett created her own miniature landscape, using an 8-by-8-foot Styrofoam base and hand-carving the meandering hills, carefully planting the wire and foam trees, playing the role of city planner guided by Google earth, old city maps, and her own experiences of Upstate New York and the Hudson Valley. As she continued to work, making “small changes every day,” the fictional rural farming community grew into a fictional small town-each of these buildings also handcrafted by the artist. These paintings document this evolution. Throughout, Bennett’s hand remains evident through her deft brushwork, reminding the viewer of the painterly interpretation of the original mediation. A far cry from Cole, Church and the gang, the American wilderness has been tamed into a beautified Monopoly board.
As impressive as Bennett’s methodology is, what remains most captivating about these works is the subtle negation of utopia they present. The main gallery is filled with paintings that seem innocent enough, but there is something disturbing about the perfect grid-like streets coupled with charming cul-de-sacs crowded with buildings and cars but void of human forms. Also missing are the familiar elements of identity: the streets and stores bear no name; homes have no address; and churches have no denomination. In the second gallery, the playful deceit continues. From a similar aerial point-of-view the vista extends across a bucolic rural setting complete with lazy afternoon shadows-another “natural” element controlled by the artist-but similarly lacking any precise clue of locale or chronology. Without such designations, the nostalgic illusion is complete, and these quixotically wrought narratives remain suspended in time and the imagination.