The paintings of Jenness Cortez have rich American bloodlines. Astute viewers know right away that they are being transported back to the golden age of American landscape painting, when it unabashedly carried portentous meaning. Landscape painters who flourished in the middle of the 19th century readily saw a spiritual dimension to the still young country. It was easy to see America literally as a new Eden and thus a place of renewal.
Both renewal and purpose are inherent in Cortez’s landscapes. Although small in size compared with the work of her Hudson River School forebears, her paintings are succinct, and ripe with deeper meanings. Cortez has polished traditional landscape devices, especially those that lead a viewer into a painting where these meanings will be experienced and understood. “I want to lead people to something good and eternal,” Cortez says, and a figure walking toward the horizon or a simple procession of sheep or cows give viewers their cue to enter the painting, and to be influenced by its atmosphere.
Though resolutely non-doctrinaire, the charged atmospheres that Cortez creates are distinctly spiritual. To assert such values these days might be an ambitious, even perilous aim, but her ambitions have great precedents in American art. Thomas Coles’s epic cycles, “The Course of Empire,” and “The Voyage of Life,” the earliest painterly manifestations of the workings of the divine in nature, are out-and-out allegories on traditional moralizing themes, but painters who succeeded Cole were more subtle in conveying sacred messages; for example Frederick Church often included a surreptitious cross in his compositions. But the closest, and most pertinent antecedent for Cortez is George Inness, who expressed his philosophy concerning the divine purely in landscape terms without supporting symbols.
Cortez eagerly embraces Inness’s heady conviction that ineffable notions can be expressed discreetly. Her work embraces the notion that spirituality can exist without the anthropomorphic and capricious God who dominates traditional religious thought. Her painting, “Summer Sunrise,” is somewhat a remembrance. Having grown up in southern Indiana, Cortez recalls times when the air was palpably hot and wet. The female figure is simply walking toward the horizon, but it is obvious, given the Church-like golden cast to the scene, that this is a spiritual journey and that she is a surrogate for us, the viewers.
“Indian Ladder” depicts a famous land form in upstate New York near Cortez’s Saratoga home. Indian Ladder is an escarpment where the profile of the mountains suddenly makes a decisive shift. This was the kind of natural occurrence that in the 19th century was understood as a mark of God’s handiwork. Cortez’s landscapes are a kind of culmination she prepared for by honing an immaculate realistic style. Photographs help her fix the fleeting moment to be painted later in the studio. This is how she gets the precise sensations of “September, Five PM,” for instance.
Earlier in her career, these full-fledged landscapes were preceded by traditional fruit and flower still lifes and poignant paintings of animals, especially horses and cows. But because of the myriad factors involved in landscape paintings, such as establishing a palpable fore-, middle- and background, or achieving the correct light, these latest works are a leap for an artist who had restricted herself to what’s on tabletop or in a pasture.
The animals she has become comfortable with participate in the new work in a transfigured way. “Autumn Spirits” with its mysterious light features a symbol-laden white horse who is a powerful spiritual presence, a reminder that her imbibing and mastering the landscape tradition resulted from an ingrained need. Jenness Cortez needed a larger arena to contain her vital content, and she moves in it with suppleness and grace.
William Zimmer is a contributing critic for The New York Times, November, 1997.