18 March 2024

Locating the Land

Lydia Dildilian searches for
the meaning of landscape


by Kate Mothes

The word ‘landscape’ may bring to mind idyllic pastures or rivers, vast vistas, drone flyovers of dramatic terrain, or representations throughout art history. In the U.S., the Hudson River School or photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration present specific views of land or territory from the perspective of those who aimed to conquer it, from settler colonialists and the fraught belief in Manifest Destiny to the Roosevelt Administration’s desire to paint a picture of opportunity in the rural West following the Great Depression.

American landscape painting drew on a long European tradition, which began to rise to popularity in the 15th century. By the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age propelled landscape painting to the fore as artists developed techniques to portray atmosphere and weather more realistically. And into the 19th and 20th centuries, Romanticism embraced the subject, depicting wild, “untamed” vistas (think Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic 1818 composition, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog of 1818). The painters of the Hudson River School found a romantic view of landscape an apt way to express themes relevant to American culture in the mid-19th century: exploration, discovery, and settlement.

“Today, these themes are ubiquitous but removed from the source,” artist Lydia Dildilian says, “as evidenced by scrolling through stock imagery of ‘land’ and finding generic non-places filled with oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts. When further compared to contemporary representations of landscape in pop culture media like video games, films, fine art, and advertisements, the viewer is treated with a very different set of ideals about land, its use, and what it means to live in America in the 21st century.”

Dildilian is interested in the loaded connotations of the word “landscape”—what it brings to mind when we imagine one and how different that may be from lived experience. The notion is as much a manufactured idea as any physical place, and in the U.S., it is inextricably tied to the legacy of Manifest Destiny, which compelled droves of white settlers westward in an expansion they believed to be preordained. They uprooted and destroyed Indigenous communities and shaped a vision of the American West as one of opportunity, wealth, and arable land as far as the eye can see. It has always been part and parcel of the American Dream; something to be taken and shaped for oneself.

In her otherworldly scenes, Dildilian juxtaposes visual references from photographs with screenshots from the Fallout franchise, a series of video games set in a post-apocalyptic future. Using an acrylic skin transfer method to attach images and collages to substrate, she paints over the transfer to render a composite of an “American landscape that is fractured, incomplete, and reworked.” Merging elements of painting, collage, and photography, she explores both natural and human-built surroundings, often using vibrant, saturated colors that contrast our typical association with nature as lush green or blue.

Dildilian focuses on the relationships and contradictions between physical places and the mental idea of landscape, emphasizing how “an ideology can haunt a location—the idea that location and human presence is integrally bound,” she says. Looking to historical representations and attitudes toward land from a range of aesthetic, aspirational, and practical perspectives, she leans into the idea that “the dimensions of the natural world are not only supportive but also reflective of various facets of people’s psychological, social, and cultural existence” at any given time. She adds, “The natural world is not just a passive backdrop but an active participant.”

The artist has a solo show coming up at the Bradbury Art Museum in Jonesboro, Arkansas, which opens on May 14. Find more on her website and Instagram.

All images © Lydia Dildilian

Share your thoughts