In an era in which the heartbeat of time has accelerated exponentially, the silent and enduring subject has a particular appeal. We 21st Century citizens of the water planet have spun into a new kind of orbit, talking and texting and tweeting with an ever-larger network of family and friends and colleagues that demands our constant attention. On city streets or country lanes, where we chirp into bluetooth headsets or thumb our smartphones, daily ritual has been forsaken, quietude is non-existent and private meditations are a thing of the past.
Looking at Karen Wilberding Diefenbach’s new mixed media paintings of ancient olive trees and her life-sized bronze renditions of the Pecora Massese sheep, a viewer can imagine the artist’s deep exhalation of contentment and calm upon at arriving at the Camaiore farmhouse that “changed my notion of time” 10 years ago. There, the gnarled olive trees that cling to the steep hills live on and on, far longer than the humans who tend them. The Tuscan sheep engaged in their never-ending munching and bending and shuffling seem not to have altered for centuries. And the homely silver-gray Maremma cows, with their wattles and sleepy eyes outlined like ancient Egyptian princesses, appear both “a little sad and a little noble.”
“They have a quality of survival about them,” Diefenbach says of her four-legged subjects and the stately arboreal “guardians” of their Mediterranean environment. “I like the modesty and strength they seem to have.” She sees the animals and the trees as compatible subjects because, “They are creatures of the same land, and share the same fragile limbs.”
Indeed, Diefenbach’s Pecore can seem like gangly adolescents, with their knobby knees, extended necks and anvil-shaped heads. And then there are those doleful eyes, communicating a seeming patience, an acceptance of life, a steadfastness with the land. These are sheep that might have aroused Giacometti’s interest with their improbable, enduring beauty. Even the patinated bronze Diefenbach uses seems to reassure us that these herds will be tending to their natural imperative long after we are gone.
Similarly, the ”bare and heroic” form of an ancient walnut tree inspired Diefenbach’s new alberi paintings. To memorialize a noce tree, which died on her property in 2004 – and to honor the other tenacious trees that plant their roots in the rocky hillside soil — she employs a restrained, quiet palette and lets the trees “grow” to the size they seem to want to be, adding paper at a picture’s edges as the image finds its shape. As with the sheep, Diefenbach’s interest is in the gnarly forms of the olive trees, in the lines they create against the sky. And by placing her trees in differing atmospheres, such as fog or snow, she alludes to the transitory quality of nature. Both the timeless and the evanescent co-exist within her trees, as they stand guard on the humans who come and go during their lifetimes.
Diefenbach has said that she has long admired the miniature landscapes that embellish many a Medieval or Renaissance painting. Though human drama may roil in the foregrounds of these pictures, an observant viewer can glimpse timeless and enduring meadows, mountains or streams past the arched windows or castellated turrets. In her new work, Diefenbach has rescued the eternal landscape from such a supporting role, placing it squarely in the foreground. In doing so, she generously offers her viewers the opportunity for that same satisfying exhalation of contentment and calm that characterized her own discovery of Camaiore a decade ago.
Gail Gregg © August 2010
Gail Gregg is an artist and writer living in New York City. She is a frequent contributor to art publications on matters of current art and culture.