En Plein Air, inspired by the unique site of the High Line, examines and expands the tradition of outdoor painting. The title refers to the mid-19th century practice of en plein air painting (French for “in the open air”). When pre-mixed paints became readily available in tubes, and thus could be easily transported along with canvases and easels, artists brought their studios outside. The act of painting outdoors became associated with the Impressionist movement, which emphasized capturing nature and the fleeting qualities of light while depicting new perceptual and social experiences accelerated by the Industrial Revolution. The inclination to paint outside was one reaction to the overwhelming transformations of life in urban centers, as nature and cities redefined each other under the pressure of modernization—a history that connects to that of the High Line, a remnant of the industrial era of the neighborhood.
The artists in the exhibition expand well beyond the historical plein air lineage. They not only bring painting outside but imagine nature as context, subject, and collaborator. The eight featured artists approach the history, methodologies, and content of outdoor painting from a variety of perspectives. Some of the artists make work exclusively to be shown outside, while others turn nature into both the subject and the medium used to create their paintings. Still others challenge elementary distinctions between nature and the artificial. The High Line is an apt site for the consideration of the importance of landscape painting in our time, as the natural features of the park juxtapose with the artificial scenery of the surrounding billboards, building facades and walls, and variety of advertisements.
Through the participation of an international group of artists, En Plein Air challenges the kinds of work traditionally associated with public art—sculptures and murals—by presenting freestanding, outdoor paintings that can be viewed in the round and in dialogue with the surrounding landscapes.
Firelei Báez (b. 1981, Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic) references European decorative arts spread by colonial empires. Located at 20th Street, 19.604692°N 72.218596°W depicts a Haitian Sans-Souci Palace ruin that appears to sink into the ground. In this ongoing body of work, Báez examines incarnations of Sanssouci: the 18th century Rococo palace built by Frederick the Great, the palace of Haitian Revolution leader and proclaimed first King of Haiti Henri Christophe, and Haitian revolution leader Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci, who was assassinated by Henri Christophe.