On Landscape Painting

Elizabeth Sims

The rock sits in a high saddle between peaks of the eastern Sierra Nevada, its surface a star field of night colors rivered with veins of quartz. Seated there above the world, it seems to breathe as I sit beside it. When I press my palm against its flesh, it releases slivers of last night’s ice to melt against my skin.

Hidden in the desire to know is the wanting to be known. I look until I can parse the suede dapple of lichen from the rock’s speckled crust, then the black lichen from the gold. Beneath it, the feldspar from the mica. I see the scars of separation on it, and the places where it’s been smoothed. I hear the wind sing round its body, carrying parts of it away. I watch while the sun passes overhead, slowly rearranging the shadows on its face until its features change and change again.

This confederation of fungus and shadow, time and pressure, water and wind: once it was thrust very, very slowly through the earth’s crust and into the atmosphere. Once it was a piece of mountainside emerged with a crack to come tumbling—perhaps yesterday or a million years ago—to rest here, shedding atoms by the second, just pre-pebbles; past and future dust.

I can’t really imagine this thing in front of me. It is multitudes divided by infinity, which maybe equals time. I take a picture and capture an eighth of a second of its western exposure.

In the studio, I look at this picture. I mark out the rock’s contour, and block in its attributes to proportion; the planes where it sheared off from whatever it was before, the crumbly bits and grain of silica, and the waves of compressed strata—each layer a canyon wall, a glacial basin, a riverbed it used to be. As I work, it metastasizes, the nitty gritty of it delta-ing away from me. Just a floodplain of impressions, now becoming interpretations, inventions. What’s left are just the rock’s interventions upon me. My mind takes on its blankness. My marks, its indelibility.

The painting becomes itself. It doesn’t look like its subject, but like echoes sent between us, layered into a new sound that hangs in the air full of touch and invisibility.

I don’t know my collaborator any better. Our meeting generates more mystery, more otherness. Through my work, the world just goes strange again, and so do I. This is my ritual; to try to know the rock more and end up knowing myself less. This is our kinship: two unknowable things in a state of becoming and coming undone, colliding in the dark.


Elizabeth Sims sitting underneath her artwork

Elizabeth Sims is an artist, writer, and fifth-generation Californian. Her work examines the intersection between prefigurative politics and the landscape of the American West. Currently, her work is on view in the California Governor's Mansion through 2021 for the exhibition, Eureka! Creativity in California: Artists of the Golden State.


Artwork/Header Image:

Detail, “In the Ninth Year, When the Gaze Became the Wall (Daruma),” graphite on paper, 44” x 30”