Madeleine Bialke’s Otherworldly Landscape Paintings Are Surreal Depictions of Ecological Catastrophe

Fallout, 2021.
Madeleine Bialke

Charmed Life, 2021.
Madeleine Bialke

In Madeleine Bialke’s landscape paintings, the woods come to life in uncanny ways. Throughout “Long SummerBialke’s debut U.K. solo show at Huxley-Parlour in London, on view until January 15, 2022—spindly trees glow eerily in shades of pink, green, and blue. These peculiar details are framed by solid canopies and skies. Smooth, elliptical leaves lift in the breeze; their flutter is faint but palpable.

The drama achieved by Bialke’s use of color is, in part, ecological—bright orange hues gesture to wildfires, while browned water suggests pollution. And as the blazing colors of log cabin interiors radiate outdoors, Bialke hints at an admonitory narrative: This indoor burning has ignited the world. But her unnatural approach to portraying nature keeps these paintings from being didactically flat. We all know that the world is on fire; better to fixate and unsettle than preach. In the face of ecological catastrophe, Bialke suggests that complacency is futile, but panic is, too. Instead, she paints—in abnormal colors—the ambivalence at the heart of nature’s serenity.

Two of a Kind, 2021.
Madeleine Bialke

Two Augusts in a Row , 2021.
Madeleine Bialke

In “Long Summer,” which was informed by Bialke’s time in the Adirondacks during the first summer of the pandemic, there are only three paintings that feature people. In Charmed Life (2020), a young woman sleeps in bed, loomed over by a tree as blue as a flame of pure oxygen. The same blue hue reappears in the trees in Three Sisters (2021) and Three Seasons (2021), and in the body of the figure in Two Augusts in a Row (2021), who sits alone at a window, gazing at the forest beyond.

In Two of a Kind (2021), a woman stands to the left of a giant tree and stares, as if rapt, at its monumental trunk. These two living beings—one with bark; the other, skin—share a glowing shade of pale gold. In the real world, neither could shine in such a way, but through the painting, Bialke asks: Which one is emanating the light, and which is absorbing it? The scene has a disquieting stillness, denuded of realism, without dirt, plants, or mulch. Some obscure magic is at work in the land. Smoothing away the grit of detail, Bialke gives us environments too alien to exploit.

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