Cars, Landscapes and a Kind of Blue

By Maria Odgaard, MA in Art History

Landscapes containing a horizon, trees, clouds and water; Steen Larsen’s paintings build on a long tradition which gained momentum in the 1700s and the Enlightenment. However Steen Larsen adds contemporary realities in the form of vehicles, asphalt, and electric lights to this conventional genre. The presence of these motifs seem bizarre when encountering art; nevertheless, highly familiar in reality and even obvious when you realize that what you are looking at well-known suburban areas in Denmark such as the beach of Egå or the forest at Moesgaard.

The title, ‘Cars, Landscapes and a Kind of Blue’, refers to three very important elements in the practice of Steen Larsen. The car as a motif and as a point of view in his paintings is not a reflection of a passion for the car as a physical object. Its presence is rather based on the car as an instrumental part of his adventures. The car creates an experience of the landscape and, as such, it is from the driver’s position many of his paintings take their point of view.

Additionally, the car in Steen Larsen’s landscapes is a marker for our time. Its presence is a consequence of how the landscape is often experienced today, a space between urban areas. The car is usually a means of transportation from point A to point B, however, for Steen Larsen the landscape seen from the car represents more than just space between destinations. Steen Larsen’s landscapes are immensely thorough and the planes of the paintings demonstrate great craftsmanship. The car is removed from its common role and placed in the sphere of art, which demands another kind of attention from the spectator.

The second part of the title is landscapes. Painting landscape has a long tradition. It came into fashion in the Enlightenment. It had its glory days in Romanticism and struggled through Modernism to now be presented before us with new meaning and content. With inspiration drawn from Turner and Constable, in the works of Steen Larsen you feel the presence of history, especially the English Romanticism. But what can one contribute to a tradition this grand?

The canonized landscape paintings of the Romantic period in Denmark and abroad were made in the first half of the 1800s; a time of industrialization. This caused changes to the landscape. Despite this we seldom see railway tracks, factories or any signs of the radical changes happening in society at that time. The artists of the 1800s chose to omit the traces of industrialization in favor of the essentially archaic landscape. The scenery was highly curated on the basis of the political and ideological views of the time. Steen Larsen goes against this kind of idealistic representations of landscapes. Based on original photographic material registered by his camera, Steen Larsen paints landscapes with horizons, sky and perspective – but also crash barriers, asphalt, and oncoming traffic. By not discarding the objects of the contemporary landscape Steen Larsen creates suspense. The contrast between traditional landscape paintings and the renewed appearance of landscapes painted by Steen Larsen depicts the classic dichotomy between nature and culture. However, Steen Larsen does not see his work as a critique. It is rather an acceptance and representation of the contemporary landscape.

Steen Larsen unites the natural light with headlights of the oncoming traffic in astonishing views. Since the 1700s, landscape paintings have portrayed nature as humbling. Encountering nature, the horizon and infinity – and the thoughts and feelings this causes – can be overwhelming. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, describes this phenomenon as the sublime in his Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgment). Kant defines the sublime as a result of victory of reason over the upsetting emotions that, for example, an overwhelming experience of a stormy ocean can cause. As such, the sublime is something inherent within the spectator and not a part of the physical reality or the landscape. The combination of the infinite and eternal in the paintings of Steen and the contemporary objects may cause bafflement and familiarity at the same time.

The paintings of Steen Larsen are not objective registrations of scenery, despite the starting point of his process: the photograph. The landscape is seen through a subject. The paintings are distilled worldviews wherein the everyday and well-known objects are loaded with meaning due to the inclusion of them, and the detailed attention to them. Steen Larsen’s landscapes are infiltrated by atmosphere and personal experience. With a lack of people or figures to identify with, the spectator is placed in the position of the artist – and the driver. In his paintings, we are presented with the landscape, as Steen Larsen experiences it.

The last part of the title is ‘a Kind of Blue’. This has more than one meaning. According to Steen Larsen it refers to the color blue, which occupies a prominent role in his paintings. Secondly, ‘Blue’ is a reference to blues music. Steen Larsen cannot work without music. It is a significant part of his process, both in the form of his own making or playing from his stereo, but also as a way of approaching the canvas. As in the case of blues music, Steen Larsen describes his paintings as made up of three primary ‘chords’. In the genre of landscape painting the chords are the ground, horizon, and sky, which can be varied and investigated indefinitely. Lastly the blue signifies the melancholic atmosphere that the paintings of Steen Larsen emanate. This is partly because of one of nature’s phenomena that have captured him recently: the rain. The sight of water on a windshield and the sense of being in a car in rainy weather are something most people can relate to. It is the feeling of a calm safety but it is not all harmony. The water is blocking the view of the landscape and at the same time blocking the ability to see it as something spectacular and eternal. This is a specific moment. With the focus on the raindrops the landscape becomes blurry and the recognizable is dissolved into almost abstract shapes and colors. The neat surface runs out.

Steen Larsen’s landscapes as seen from inside his car, bring to mind the characteristic idea of realistic painting as a window to reality with its origin in the linear perspective developed in the Renaissance. In the works of Steen Larsen there is the space in which the driver sits, there is an actual window, and a landscape on the other side of it. Even though this landscape is disappearing due to the rain running down the windshield. Steen Larsen claims no reality behind the glass and asserts the painting as a representation despite the extreme realism of his work. What we see is subjective, constructed, and a mirror of the one holding the brush.

Shades of blue, the blues and rain add a melancholy to the landscapes of Steen Larsen and possibly to the experience of our present landscape as well. However, this is not a critical comment on change. Steen Larsen portrays an atmosphere. His works are relevant as expressions of a state of mind, which landscape paintings have expressed since the 1700s. Representations of landscape may feel eternal but it reveals something about its contemporaries; whether it is the conscious omissions made during Romanticism or the contemporary additions of Steen Larsen. Steen Larsen gives meaning to the things we all see. His paintings evoke recognition and encourage contemplation. They are not idealized landscapes but representations of facts supplemented his personal blues.