Reflections on Landscape and Place: WMU’s Summer Alumni Exhibition

by Joanne Heppert

Sy Ellens and Marilyn Johnson are the two artists featured in Western Michigan University’s Summer Alumni Exhibition. The show opened April 26th and will run through June 29th in the Albertine Monroe-Brown Gallery of the Richmond Center for Visual Arts.

As one walks through the glass doors to the gallery, color is the first thing that is noticeable. In just a sweep, not distinguishing one artist’s pieces from the other’s, geometric shapes and blocks of color cover the pieces on the walls. The daylight from the windows in the gallery illuminates the pieces and adds a sense of warmth, helping to illuminate the expressive choice of hue and shade with which both artists concern themselves. The formal cohesion of the two artists’ works is fairly striking, despite their different approaches. Both artists seek to represent an idea of place or region through abstraction and expressionistic choices in depicting form and color. While Ellens’ work in its representational nature depicts a more pastoral, idealized version of the Midwest landscape, Johnson’s more abstract work allows the viewer to project their own ideas about the places she references in her paintings.

As Malcolm Andrews asserts in his book Landscape and Western Art, “Landscape in art tells us, or asks us to think about, where we belong. Important issues of identity and orientation are inseparable from the reading of meanings and the eliciting of pleasure from landscape.” [1] Here Andrews begins to touch on an aspect very important to the interpretation of these two artists’ works – the dynamic between landscape, identity and place. “Where we belong,” for Andrews, is more complicated than physical coordinates. This dynamic of identity and landscape defines an idea of place that is saturated with communal memories, values and history. Places in landscapes are not defined solely by their physical characteristics, but by communities and commonalities.

Sy Ellens, an artist who has lived and worked in the Kalamazoo area for decades, uses color and detail to create an idealistic, yet aloof representation of the Midwestern landscape. Ellens has also been featured in magazines such as The Watercolor Magazine and The Artist’s Magazine. [2] Ellens travels frequently, has taught abroad, and participated in Art in Embassies programs, however the content of the pieces in this exhibition are close-to-home. [3] His images are subtly abstracted, color and detail manipulated into a warm and dream-like description of the scene. Details give way to texture and color, and Ellens uses this expressionistic technique not to portray a specific plot of land, but a region in general. The color is amplified and the lines and delineations between forms are not crisp or exact, but the essence of the scene and the beauty of the place are still recognizable. The point of view of his landscapes is often oriented above the horizon line, so the viewer is hovering above the scene, like in his piece Summer Shimmers from 2009. This point-of-view, while it does allow the viewer to take in the general beauty of the scene, also keeps them from identifying or interacting with the piece on a personal or physical level – there are no vantage points in a Midwestern landscape that one could summit to see such a vista. Ellens grants the viewer the experience of seeing the landscape as if in an airplane, flying over the scene and witnessing it while being completely removed from it. This representation for landscape, while striking in its color and aesthetic appeal, does not interrogate the ideas of place like Marilyn Johnson’s pieces.

Sy Ellens, Summer Shimmers, 2009, acrylic on canvas

Marilyn Johnson, an abstract artist active in the Kalamazoo area, also deals with landscape and place like Ellens, however Johnson also maps out the suburban space and explores definitions of region and place on a deeper level than Ellens’ distanced representations. [4] Her abstracted pieces, with their colorful, layered blocks of color and geometric forms reference neighborhoods and farmlands. Johnson’s pieces read as aerial views of plots of land, reinterpreted and abstracted. The grid-like patterns of streets and patchwork of land are translated into her own scheme of color and form. In dialogue with Ellens’ pieces, the link to these abstracted geometric paintings and the places which they represent are reinforced. Johnson’s titles, such as Going Home I, also reference an idea of place on a more abstract level than Ellens. Here ‘Home’ seems to be defined through an aerial interpretation of buildings and streets, abstracted into bright and inviting blocks of color. This representation of the physical place plays into Johnson’s representation of the abstract concept of ‘home’ and allows the viewer to reflect on the qualities and associations with that idea of place. Home for the viewer may conjure an address, images of a place to live, however it also brings up memories, values, and relationships that are just as important. Whereas Ellen’s pieces deal more with the physical aspects of the Midwestern landscape and the beauty and character of its natural features, Johnson’s pieces interrogate, through their abstraction, the viewer’s conception of these places.

Marilyn Johnson, Going Home I, 2011, oil on canvas

According to American geographer and writer Donald Meinig in his book The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, “Landscape is defined by our vision and interpreted by our minds.” [5] This idea is carried out by both of these artists whose work relies on visual references to landscape and place, but who, in turn, interpret the scene through abstraction and expressionistic approaches to rendering. While Ellens’ pastoral paintings directly reference and glorify the humble beauty of the Midwestern Great Lakes region, Johnson takes a more removed approach, abstracting her work even further and inviting viewers to contribute their own conceptions of place and landscape to the works.


[1] Malcolm Andrews, Landscape and Western Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999), 8.

[2] Sy Ellens, The Artist [no date], Accessed May 30th, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tonya Durlach, Exhibit features paintings by West Michigan artists [April 23, 2012]. Accessed May 30th, 2012.

[5] Donald Meinig, The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essay (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 1-3.



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