CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Expanding horizons: Leslie Banta's mental landscapes

Ever since Leslie Banta caught my attention with her art boxes at Kronos Gallery's inaugural show in Staunton last May, I've been looking forward to her solo exhibition. So, upon learning that "Outside-Inside," her current show at Kronos, showcases only her oil paintings, I was surprised and initially disappointed. 

Emphasis on "initially." I recently spent an afternoon with the show's six small and 10 large landscapes and came away as wowed by Banta's paintings as I was by her boxes. 

The images are deceptively simple. In each, a vast expanse of sky looms above a small, nearly featureless strip of land at the bottom of the canvas— or panel, in the case of the smaller works. Yet a closer examination reveals much more going on in these pieces than just tranquil green fields and blue skies.

Banta layers unexpected bits of paper– an Indian print, a book page, a tissue paper pattern– under her paint, letting their texture influence the movement within the image. Occasionally, she allows snippets of text or illustration to surface. For instance, in "Sunrise with German Face," a small disc hovering above a luminous area on the horizon reveals an underlying etching of a profile ringed by Romanesque letters. 

Elsewhere Banta scratches through her paint with bits of script. Uninterested in realism, her brush strokes are wild and dynamic, and she introduces surprising tools, like a serrated putty scraper, to manipulate the paint's textural quality. Banta's palette is subtly varied, veering into colors that are more imaginative than true-to-nature. For example, she places lines of carmine or intense turquoise here and there along her green horizons.

 Banta's blue skies, soaring with corals and buffs, dominate her paintings in a way that's reminiscent of the Hudson River School. But unlike those 19th century painters, Banta has no intention of keeping her landscapes tied to the real world. Instead, she plays with what the mind projects onto vistas, how our thoughts and associations affect our visual experience. In her artist's statement, she writes, "I enjoy exploring the idea of ‘cloud as spaceship' or ‘cloud as pet.'" And her clouds often seem like characters in her paintings. 

Banta's idealized landscapes incorporating collage call to mind American artist Carol Anthony's work. But whereas Anthony's serene oil pastel vistas seem static, Banta's paintings become more dynamic the longer a viewer looks. Her layers ebb and flow the way our thoughts do, and tranquil green fields and blue skies become wonderlands of depth and movement

Leslie Banta's exhibition, "Outside-Inside," is on view at Kronos Gallery through February. 14 Byers St. (on the Wharf), Staunton. 540-213-1815,