Picture a green field glowing slightly yellow where
its edge meets the sky, touched by a vertical shaft of light from above. The
canvas shimmers with a lush surface, in the restrained yet emanative manner of
Sebastian Spreng’s landscapes. Spare, nearly abstract and punctuated by
iconic, minimal forms, these landscapes depict not so much places as states of
In his exhibit at Friesen Gallery, Spreng’s mind is
on Wagner’s four-opera cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” Long known for both his
landscapes and his writing about classical music and opera, contemporary
Argentinean artist Spreng has previously devoted art exhibits to musical
pieces. A stage designer in his early years, he is sensitive to repetition,
rhythm and groupings of motifs to particular effect. The paintings in this show
are conceived and hung as such: a set of canvases is keyed to a contrasting
color harmony; a motif such as a tree or a ring will repeat with variation
across a series.
Spreng uses elements that have been staples
of his earlier landscape work, such as his signature trees, as stand-ins for
characters. The islands are landmarks for the journeys of Siegfried and
For “The Ring,” Spreng incorporates new
motifs as well, and these point out a limitation of pairing landscape themes
with epic sagas. In a few canvases where Spreng equates characters with
landscape objects, the objects diminish their intended epic themes. Valhalla,
home of the gods, is a dark ship. Fafner and Fasolt, the giants who built
Valhalla, loom like tornadoes over a forest. Freia, goddess of love and charged
with taking care of apples that keep the gods young, is represented by an apple
tree. While the imagery is clear, these depictions lack the emotional power of
pieces Spreng treats more purely as statements about color, or as
abstractions that give a place added mystery.
Humans don’t have much of an imprint in Spreng’s
landscapes. For an opera that is about transaction between humans and gods,
marked by roiling rounds of fate, betrayal, love and deceit, the minimized human
presence is disorienting. Siegfried and Wotan appear in two canvases not as
heroes but as slivers, smaller in proportion than humans in a Chinese landscape.
They are not in harmony with nature and heaven they face it with overwhelming
odds against their very existence.
Nature, not human fate, is the pervasive power in
these paintings. And while the overall feeling in these landscapes is
expectation and foreboding, they also offer hope. In “The Ash Tree,” the
mythical tree of the world stands alone, white against an off-white landscape,
but its branches reach out like tendrils hanging on to life. And in “Siegfried,”
the chasm hanging over the figure recoils, as if even it can’t stand the sight
of the dragon hiding within its caverns.
Lucia Enriquez: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sebastian Spreng’s “Ring Landscape: Theme
and Variations,” 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. through tomorrow
and by appointment at Friesen Gallery, 1210
Second Ave., Seattle (206-628-9501 or www.friesengallery.com).