Hope: Edenic, but also a little unsettling.
Madison artist Dennis Nechvatal may paint landscapes, but you'd never accuse him of being a slave to botanical reality.
Instead, he paints what you might call "magical hyper-nature." These landscapes are so lush, so green, they're too good to be true, but also a little creepy. They suggest the presence of humans, but no one is to be found.
The artist has lived here since 1978, just a few years after receiving his MFA from Indiana University. The Chazen has assembled 17 of his recent works, including one, the large painting Hope, commissioned specifically for this show.
In Hope, the central tree in a verdant landscape is actually dead, with broken branches - yet a sinuous vine (a recurring image in Nechvatal's paintings) coils around this dead tree. The vine sprouts white blooms that reach for the sun, providing new life that overtakes death.
In Flower Study: Blue Flower, Nechvatal comes up with blossoms of his own invention, from some that look more or less plausible to clearly fanciful striped and plaid ones. Like many of his paintings, Flower Study is colorful, busy and dense. While he's not afraid of having empty space in a composition, he generally operates on the principle that more is more.
Nechvatal's massively lush, somewhat primitive landscapes mark him as a descendant in spirit of painters like Henri Rousseau, active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unlike Nechvatal, Rousseau incorporated plenty of human and animal figures, but they share the same interest in abundant, over-the-top vegetation, with each leaf and frond clearly discernible.
There's also a whiff of surrealism in the local painter's work. Truth, from 2006, offers a truly improbable object: a tree trunk presented horizontally, in a sawhorse-like form, complete with leg-like branches. One end of the trunk is cut off smoothly, the other end jaggedly. Upper branches appear dead, yet are flowering. A vine (again) curls around one "leg" of the sawhorse-like form.
Truth gives off an odd charge. As in other paintings, it suggests the intervention of people, yet no people are to be seen. That tension keeps Nechvatal's work from seeming merely decorative or pretty.
The artist also incorporates small tin masks into some of his paintings. While those pieces are perhaps less successful, they show another side of his work and his engagement with three-dimensional concerns.
Ultimately, Nechvatal's acrylic paintings are Edenic but also a little unsettling. You may already be familiar with them: His Offering II (not in the Chazen show) is on the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission's annual poster this year, as well as bookmarks available at public libraries.
But it's worth seeing Nechvatal's paintings in person. While they may not operate on a terribly intellectual level, there's an immediacy to their appeal, and also a sense of mystery.