Paul Hotvedt's paintings make it clear what's not the matter with Kansas.

Land Lover 

Paul Hotvedt's paintings make it clear what's not the matter with Kansas.

The American poet Wallace Stevens' most well-known work is probably "Anecdote of the Jar." In it, Stevens describes a man-made object — the jar — as "taking dominion everywhere" once the narrator places it in the Earth's soil. So powerful is the jar's influence in the unkempt environment of a Tennessee hill, for instance, that "The wilderness rose up to it."

Something similar is going on in Lawrence artist Paul Hotvedt's landscapes, most of which depict eastern Kansas — the sometimes-derided Midwestern "fly-over zone" that is actually beloved by most of us who call it home. Through the 24 oil-on-masonite paintings in The Earth Restored at the Dennis Morgan Gallery, Hotvedt catches and tames the wildness of the Great Plains.

It's a little ironic to look at beautifully depicted renderings of bucolic Kansas while standing in a downtown basement within earshot of traffic on Bruce Watkins Drive. But like Stevens' jar, Hotvedt's paintings bring order to nature's chaos. The paintings capture a moment — it takes him anywhere from one to three hours to finish them, going straight to canvas with no retouching — in a process that Hotvedt describes as Zenlike. The viewer feels it, too.

All of the pieces look as if Hotvedt came upon the subjects by accident or, in keeping with the tone of the show, by some serendipitous route. Out on a lark, the artist finds a scene and is compelled to render it. He has a fondness for triptychs, which seem to trace some emotional journey: "Before Struggle" is a calm country pond; next, though, in "Willows/Frustration," the canvas is darker, the mood more troubled; finally, in "Beyond Thinking of It," all frustration is lost in a placid sky that fills three-quarters of the frame.

Technically, each of these roughly 13-inch-square paintings is a rustic little masterpiece. One portion of another triptych, "Red Fallow Field," shows a vibrant red-and-pink sky. In "An Admission of Chaos," wild lines squirm about the canvas. In "Chaos Giving Way," a rough, windblown section of grass by a creek symbolizes the chaos of the title. And the natural grain of wood in the frame in "March 16, 2004" mirrors the brush strokes on the canvas.

Hotvedt sometimes gives his paintings dates for names, such as "June 12, 2002" or "September 21, 2004." In a way, this signifies the painting's "birth" date, but it also serves as a sort of diary on the act of creating. It's as if he's writing "I was here at this day and this is what I did," simultaneously documenting his own life and that of the land surrounding him.

The exhibition's title, The Earth Restored, might seem to refer to a preservation effort inherent in the painting of living things in the natural world, but this is only partly true. "It's us who are the ones restored, not the Earth," Hotvedt tells the Pitch. "But in the process of restoration, if one has their eyes truly open, we have the opportunity to acknowledge where it happened, from interacting with the cosmos and observing its patterns, suspending our usual cares for a while, and just playing and copying the stuff that makes us wonder."

For Hotvedt, "In one motion, landscape ignites abstract thinking and recognition of a place in the universe."

In Hotvedt's hands, these isolated places become symbols of moods unraveling in the trees, feelings that get tangled in the grass and the bushes, emotions inhabiting the sky and the clouds familiar to anyone who's passed through Kansas on their way to somewhere else — or was entranced by the geography and decided to stay.

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