Balancing Buoyancy and Desolation: Emily Kepulis at Lolo Pass

Emily Kepulis, Has worldsharp effect on them river river river river river river river, 2022. Watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, and marker on paper. 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Portland-based artist Emily Kepulis’s exhibition at Lolo Pass, Water Briefed, is a case study in the subconscious, focused on watersheds, ecosystems, and the natural world at large. Featuring eleven paintings that depict humanity’s impact on the environment, the exhibition creates meaning by association, using fulgent swathes of color—rendered both figuratively and abstractly—to detail a vision that refuses to moralize, at least not didactically. Absent here are heavy-handed depictions of environmental wastelands. Instead, the power of Kepulis’s work comes from its willingness to depict active observation. The paintings in Water Briefed refuse stasis, in order to allow their viewer a contemplative, even reverential space, playing with the duality of the fact that how we feel is where we are.

The central painting in the show, Has worldsharp effect on them river river river river river river river (2022), occupies a prominent wall in Lola Pass’s gallery space and displays Kepulis’s negative capability as an artist. Picnicking sans shirts, three figures frolic in a seemingly dystopian natural landscape, where delineation seems to be deliberately off-kilter. In front of the picknickers, another figure walks forthrightly through a blue morass. Wearing a shirt and sunglasses, he seems simultaneously aimless and determined. The picknickers watch him impassively, their attention focused on his next step. 

In Has worldsharp, Kepulis’s distinctive hues of red, orange, and fuchsia mingle with the painting’s broad overhang of blue and white. What’s most engrossing about the painting, however, is the encoded ambiguity within it. In my mind, a game of numbers is being played: three loll apathetically, while one studies and works. Within the context of the show, the disparity between these two behaviors is acute. While the picknickers chose to accept the destruction of the natural world, the walking man attempts to do something about it. Rather than ignore or deny the destruction, he is immersed in his environment, regardless of its precarity. 

Emily Kepulis, Certain midnights at Metolius, 2022. Watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, and marker on paper. 41 x 29.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Other paintings in Water Briefed build off the same premise, juxtaposing buoyancy and desolation. Until all’s unlit and skin is fruitless (2022) repeats a similar theme as it depicts a group of beachgoers frolicking in a mesmerizingly chaotic landscape suffused with atmospheric dark blue and brown. The paintings Certain midnights at Metolius (2022) and All the tall mad mountains and their minds (2022) eschew the human figure for swirling streams of crisscrossing motion, each a traversing conduit unto itself. Echoing Gertrude Stein, there is pointedly no “there there” in both paintings, and the result is a mishmash of color field harmony.

Walking around the show, studying each painting intently, I was struck by Kepulis’s use of layering, her staccato brushstrokes overcome in places by expansive domains of paint. In all the works, energy is Kepulis’s predominant occupation, one that dovetails with the natural element. Both are part of a whole. The pentimenti felt in certain works is not explicit—there are no noticeable stylistic fissures or re-imaginings. But by carefully studying each painting, a malleability in scope and design expresses itself. Felt, alive, Kepulis’s underdrawing enhances the actuality of the final product. The subtle point made throughout the exhibition is that, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, humanity’s every act impacts the natural environment—the plastic wrapper you throw away in the trash tomorrow doesn’t end its journey there, and Water Briefed knows it.

Emily Kepulis, Until all’s unlit and skin is fruitless, 2022. Watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, and marker on paper. 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Kepulis leans into her subject matter, without letting it overcome her. Her gesture toward observation, rather than declamation, marks all of her work in the exhibition. In Kepulis’s eyes, what we witness isn’t what we see—it’s who we are. Humanity and the natural world are irrevocably intertwined, and this fact is both problem and solution. Kepulis offers her viewers no answers, but rather the simple presence of a new and needed conversation. She asks: what vision of the environment does humanity hope to see in the future? How can that vision be enacted, not just glimpsed? How important is silence to activism and, on a day-to-day basis, where do the two meet in the wider natural world?   

Being that I’m from Nevada—the driest state in the nation, with 92 percent of it mired in a severe drought—I went to the exhibition expecting to be taught lessons I already knew. Conservation is important. Water waste is bad, so on. Instead, I discovered a willingness to see every landscape with two different sets of eyes: one surveying the present version of things, the other a possible one. “Natural” is a word forever in flux, and Kepulis takes advantage of its instability. Her work in Water Briefed details how to be briefed by water is to be utterly consumed by it. Nearly every animate thing shares this doused obsession, whether they realize it or not. 

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Author: Jeff Alessandrelli

Alessandrelli is most recently the author of the poetry collection Fur Not Light (2019). Also find work by Jeff Alessandrelli in BOMB Magazine, Poetry London, Denver Quarterly, and the Hong Kong Review of Books. Alessandrelli directs the non-profit record label/press Fonograf Ed.