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Paint a Happy Tree
by Melissa Gronlund
Dan Attoe, "You Get What You Deserve," July 7-Aug. 7, 2005, at Vilma Gold, London

In his first solo show in Britain, West Coast native Dan Attoe presented a suite of painterly landscapes that are suggestive both of the grand canvases of the Hudson River School and the amateurish paintings of the American wilderness sold at malls and by mail-order. Quite neatly, this collision of the awesome and the everyday is echoed in the subject matter of Attoe’s paintings: highway strip joints set at the edge of a dark pine forest; split-level houses cowering beneath big skies; dust-covered trucks barrelling through mountain ranges.

In reaching after the sublime -- or compromised versions of it -- Attoe achieves a curiously personal effect. The uneasy relation of binaries (between nature and culture, the sincere and the ironic) that recurs in his work reflects the contradictions of the place where he grew up (born in Portland, Ore., Attoe currently makes his home in Washington State) -- the Pacific Northwest, both a bastion of environmentalism and a technological heartland.

The canvases are small and precisely rendered, and Attoe often scribbles short, cynical aphorisms across them. These further the sense of conflict, suggesting both contempt for and solidarity with his cast of characters. The butt of these jokes is more often than not Don Attoe himself -- his hometown and background, and his artistic talent and aspirations.

A canvas of a picnicking family by a gushing waterfall has a painted faux leather label at bottom that announces, ‘I Make Most of This Shit Up’. On another painting depicting an angst-ridden baseball-capped boy, Attoe comments, ‘We are all disabled’.

Though his scrawled comments often extend onto the gallery wall around the paintings, Attoe’s work is infuriatingly contained, and never degenerates into -- or achieves -- the wild, spectacular messiness of a gallery installation. His comments are lightly penciled and in such small print that they physically draw the viewer in, giving the impression of snooping on his private thoughts.

Part of this has to do with the diaristic origins of the pieces -- Attoe painted a canvas a day, every day, throughout art school, a process that he has continued for the past three years (the gallery’s press release outrageously compares this feat to Stendhal’s determination to write 20 lines a day, genius or not). Attoe is painting what he knows, and when he undercuts it -- through the canvases’ kitschy feel, or the scrawled comments -- it has the emotional sting of a betrayal.

At its best, Attoe’s works tap into a real sense of angst. When they strive to depict the sublime, it comes out somehow flat and defeated. When his jokes are funny, they are often at his own expense. A bland violence runs throughout -- suburban rage, hunting, misogyny -- and seems uncomfortably at home in the awesomeness of these wilderness landscapes.

One painting shows a park ranger who is mouthing, "Collect memories. Everything lasts forever." At the Vilma Gold show, Attoe drew a grinning Smokey the Bear on the wall above the painting, adding smoke that seemed to curl out from behind the canvas. The artwork as forest fire is a romantic metaphor, to be sure. But it’s not clear who or what Attoe is mocking -- is it so bad to believe in platitudes? -- and the park ranger may, in part, represent the artist himself, trying to find some way to preserve "naïve" painting in a mocking world.

Like many young artists, Attoe mines his own personal history to find it wasn’t all peachy keen. Where he stands out, though, is in his yoking of this personal conflict to the well-established depictions of the American wilderness. The line from Bierstadt to the late TV painter Bob Ross, whose whispered instructions to "paint a happy tree" have an eerie resonance here, is wobbly -- but, if you can make a connection to both ends, it’s an interesting one to try walking.

MELISSA GRONLUND is a freelance writer based in London and editor of the Frieze Art Yearbook.