’Scape Velocity

F or New Haven artist Gerald Saladyga (“suh-lah-di-guh”), landscape painting isn’t about windswept mountains, snaking rivers, pastoral valleys. Instead, think off-kilter cityscapes, billowing smokestacks, speckled cosmos.

He likes to “take a landscape and pull it apart,” converting it into two dimensions of eccentricity and bombast filled with agents and events. To begin, he’ll often apply coats of thick, bright latex house paint to canvas, layering different colors in. The house paints, thick and opaque, ensure fantastical colors like hot pinks and purples and yellows are even more extreme, and, once dry, allow him to sand back through the layers. The deeper he sands in one spot, the more colors he exposes, resulting in textured backgrounds achieving looks from starry night skies to debris-filled explosions.

Saladyga says he has “no interest” in maintaining realistic scale between objects in his work, often giving them out- or undersized dimensions. This produces an interesting visual flatness, because you can’t organize a given scene’s information according to consistent foreground and background cues. This can also turn what are usually afterthoughts into stars in his bright, hyperactive works. In one painting, for instance, stenciled birds are much larger than the houses they fly over. Such choices give many of Saladyga’s works a pop art look, and add a “childlike vibrancy” to them, as he puts it.

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Many of the landscapes are split into three horizontal sections—“like the medieval artwork” that helped inspire them, Saladyga says. He’s referring to a historical vein of religious art that depicted three realms: Heaven, Earth and Hell, top to bottom. Saladyga’s refashioned this approach, taking a particular place and showing different forms of itself, more like “timescapes” illustrating a transition from past to present to future.

In Pre-Columbian/Post-Columbian, the bottom portion travels “way back,” featuring an Aztecan pyramid and a figure in an indigenous mask. The middle depicts the present, with contemporary houses in a row beneath a sky marked by the phases of the moon and large insect silhouettes. Above is the future: a large blimp embossed with an eye in its center, surveilling over a series of nuclear power plant cooling towers.

It’s an unsettling progression, made more so by the dominance of fiery colors (red, orange, yellow), but Saladyga isn’t inclined to sacrifice difficult content in order to highlight the idyllic. A beautiful scene is nice, but “you’re ignoring the tension wire” just outside of the frame, he says. That there is some kind of man-made augmentation in even the most bucolic of places is Saladyga’s “truth in landscape.” They typically feature major human augmentations, be they wind turbines or cellphone towers or construction cranes.

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Some of the work has been inspired by faster-moving, visceral calamities. With landscapes and even some figure paintings, he delves into what’s become known as the Rwandan Genocide, committed by the country’s Hutu majority in the mid-1990s amidst a brutal civil war. “It was totally and completely horrible to me,” Saladyga says, but he just couldn’t look away. Instead, he produced artwork depicting the fallout of this kind of atrocity: men, women and children missing limbs, unable to carry on as they had before, and churches filled with skulls.

Saladyga believes that “if you paint something that is violent,” people are more apt to disengage, choosing to look away from something horrific instead of examining it. Yet, “if you can bring them into the painting,” like he does with lucent colors and cartoonish figures, distressing subject matter becomes more approachable.

Lately, he’s been focusing on more benign ways human beings have changed Earth’s landscapes—namely large installations made with organic materials known as “land art.” His project Double Negative is based off Michael Heizer’s giant land-installation piece of the same name. Some 45 years ago, Heizer dug out two large, parallel tracts of Nevada desert, creating a double-sided canyon for people to walk through. Using black and white aerial photographs meticulously handpainted red, Saladyga reassembled the work into his own vision of the altered landscape. Like Heizer’s, Saladyga’s Double Negative is one of his most sizeable undertakings: it spreads across three large surfaces instead of just one.

Double Negative and other new, mixed-media pieces are set to be featured next September at the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan. Meantime, back in Saladyga’s New Haven studio near the Mill River, he’s working on other projects, too—usually three at once. “I’m here a lot,” Saladyga says, pulling landscapes apart, and putting them back together.

Gerald Saladyga
169 East St, New Haven (map)
Studio visits by appointment
(203) 773-3737

Written by Jared Emerling. Photos 1, 3 and 4 by Jared Emerling; photos 2 and 5 by Dan Mims.

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Jared Emerling is a New Haven resident with a BA in literature from SCSU. Until recently he worked as the manager of Meat&Co and 116 Crown in the 9th Square. He loves the biographies and inventions of Nikola Tesla.

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