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by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

"Cypress Garden," o/c, 36 x 84, 1997.

"Landscape of Dreams,"
o/c, 40 x 84", 1998.


"Landscape with Figs,"
o/c, 14 x 11", 1995.

"Lemon Tree," o/c,
72 x 48", 1995.

(Peter Blake Gallery, Orange County) Astrid Preston continues to create some of the most telling interpretations of our natural environment while exploring the myth that is Southern California. Intimately tied to this is the concept of space which she has explored from her earliest line drawings. Gradually her works introduced the element of the magical realm of the imagination where frustrated urbanites can escape from the hectic crush and oppression of the city.

These initial attempts defined personal space using the human body as a template. However, as her work matured Preston began to examine the vast space that we call Southern California so familiar to her from her childhood when she accompanied her father, an architect, around the region on sketching excursions. This expansion from personal to communal area opened up new horizons, both in medium and subject. Her idealized documentation of the California lifestyle, with its quaint bungalows and palm trees now glowing with color, whether executed on canvas or on prepared corrugated aluminum cast off from that ubiquitous regional industry, airplane construction (these stunning visions of the Southland remain among her finest works).

Preston has always had a love of the craft and, as she rediscovered some of the past masters of European painting her work took on a delicacy and sophistication that has replaced the bold palette and active brushwork. Now her spaces invade the interior landscape of the mind to recall the pioneering work of the Magic Realists. Early images which include dark, ominous houses partially illuminated by a street or porch light always conjure up Rene Magritte.

Gradually deserted English gardens began to populate these landscapes. The light, however, is pure Southland, akin to that of Italy, with the prevalent cypress trees of trimmed hedges that give them their sense of familiarity. Something is wrong, though. It is not just that there is no one present, or that the colors are hyperreal, but that the scene conveys the impression of an artificial dimension. Yet there is nothing foreboding about this, indeed they are quite inviting. They read as a personal space to retreat to and in which to meditate. They are sufficiently compelling that, like a good movie, they convince you to suspend reality and enjoy the immersion. Works like Solitary Garden and Golden Landscape can serve as vehicles for contemplation of what constitutes our own vision of Eden or Arcadia.

Preston has entered into a dialogue on the nature of landscape with such 19th Century American masters as Albert Bierstadt and photographer Carleton Watkins. But she also extends her exploration far deeper into the philosophical realm with pieces such as Red Apples with Garden and Landscape with Figs. Here her landscapes are lushly framed with a cornucopia of fruit that serves almost as wallpaper that surrounds a window, or a hedge that we are peering through. Our attention is now focused on the artificial arrangement of the presentation. These diminutive canvases force you to confront the proposition of the landscape as a created device, yet relishing the overwhelming beauty and inviting nature of the scene. This is a tool she also uses to dramatic effect in other landscapes such as Cypress Road or Summer Garden. The aforementioned miniature works are gems.

While Preston's paintings possess an appeal that transcends place, they are still generated out of a consciousness of the uniqueness of this part of the world. This duality lends the work its striking and compelling edge.