Wagner’s “Ring” Infuses Artist’s Landscapes

  • The Seattle Times

    Exhibit Review

    Wagner’s “Ring” infuses artist’s

    Special to The Seattle Times

    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: lucia_enriquez@hotmail.com

    Now showing

    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).

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