Paintings That Capture the Full Force of Nature

LOS ANGELES — In Melinda Braathen’s oil paintings, the forests are aflame, but at peace. The works in her solo exhibition at Baert Gallery, Atmosphere, depict landscapes in a palette of fiery reds, oranges, and yellows to create the illusion of chaos amid sanctuaries.

Braathen’s compositions of hiking trails, tide pools, and mangroves are ordinary snapshots of the outdoors. Tree branches crisscross above walking paths and spiky leaves sprout from hard soil. Things come to life through her short, vigorous brushstrokes. Deeply layered, they set the environment aglow. In “Body of water” (2022), small patches of yellow leap from red leaves, like embers jumping across kindling.

Braathen’s works are studies in the force of nature, its ability to thrive and consume any environment. Her strongest paintings are the ones in which the ecosystem has swallowed human activity. “In Time, In Tempo” (2023) shows an old car that has nosedived off a cliff, its doors and trunk popped open, splayed out like limbs after a clumsy fall. The warm tones and energetic marks make it appear like an accident in progress, a plume of fire and smoke reaching out from a burning vehicle. But, looking closer, it’s clear that time has passed. Moss, leaves, and vines crawl in and out of the vehicle. The flames are just willowy bundles of fountain grass; the smoke, impressionistic mounds of rocks and mud.

Though the red paintings command the most attention, Atmosphere also includes many dominated by blue. In the tranquil “Sound Chamber” (2023), sunshine filtering through a thick forest canopy is rendered as faint highlights of desaturated and muted red. Even in this cooler landscape, however, energy sprouts from unexpected sources, like the water that ripples and reflects the sky, erasing the horizon line. In “Ambient” (2023), the sweeping blues are disrupted by a funnel of curly white strokes, flora caught in the wind.

The most captivating paintings are the ones where humans have disturbed the landscape. In “Entwined” (2023), a woman, her face swirling and distorted, stands precariously on a rocky shore; in “Inwards” (2023), the focus tunnels down a walking path cut into a California forest. When these human interventions are highlighted, they’re wrapped in reds. Even in “Warm Echoes” (2024), which mixes blue shadows across a rusty overgrown trail, it is the trodden branches embedded into ground that light up most.

In these paintings, there’s nothing still in a still life. Nature is lush and alive, growing, pulsing, vibrating.

Melinda Braathen: Atmosphere continues at Baert Gallery (1923 South Santa Fe Avenue, Arts District, Los Angeles) through March 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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