The most basic disjunction in Nathan DiPietro's new series of egg-tempera-on-panel paintings is right on the surface: The paintings are dry. (This is an effect of the tempera.) Their surfaces have zero shine, bury all memory of moisture. But they depict the rainy town of Seabrook, Washington: its edges of ocean, its curving creeks, its chubby clouds, its canopies of mist, its proximity to the rain forest of the Olympic National Park. This place is real—or, well, it's hard to say what this place is, but it does exist. Seabrook, Washington, is an entirely new, old-fashioned "historic" beach "town."
Seabrook is a dream that began years ago during childhood beach vacations in the Pacific Northwest. Inspired by those memories, and firmly rooted in the architectural traditions of a bygone era, we are creating an authentic beach village to nestle within the spectacular natural beauty of the Olympic Peninsula. It will itself grow even more beautiful with time.
The emphasis is not mine; that's the way the text appears on Seabrook Land Company's website, created in 2010, on the page with the words "Art of Townmaking" written in a baby-blue cursive font across the top. A photograph on the page depicts a young, white grandmother seated on an immaculate, sunny sidewalk with her two young granddaughters, smiling down at them as they examine something unseen. An adult bicycle sits in the background; a child's bicycle helmet, pink, sits in the foreground. Stretching away from the people are the white columns of nice houses set close to each other (the photograph is "firmly rooted in the architectural traditions of a bygone era"). You might easily think Seabrook is a town of its own, but when you Google it, you find that its address is in the existing town of Pacific Beach. It is a residential development calling itself a town, like many residential developments have begun to do.
Another segment of the website, "History," reads, "Haven't been to this area? That might just be by design. In the early 1900's, the neighboring towns of Pacific Beach & Moclips were beach hot spots with masses of people traveling mostly by rail to this farthest west terminus. After making Pacific Beach its home during World War II, the US Navy and Air Force intentionally took the area 'off the map.' Today, with Seabrook re-introducing so many people to this beautiful area, history is indeed repeating itself."
Again, emphasis not mine. The brain strains to consider how "history is repeating itself" by the creation of a new town that isn't a town but calls its own town its "neighboring town," and how humans force stories onto (and off of) supposed maps. This jumble of brain activity finds its complement in DiPietro's series of paintings called New Northwest Coast: An Investigation of Seabrook Washington. The title makes reference to "Northwest Coast" art, which usually means art made in native traditions, and forensics ("investigation"). Seabrook is indeed a neo-past-ist situation crying out for investigation, and DiPietro's paintings are documents of open-ended curiosity, a dusty-dry archive of estrangement.
DiPietro came to Seattle after graduating with a painting degree from Central Washington University in 2003, and he's shown his landscapes at PUNCH Gallery—slightly claustrophobic, neo-suburban paintings immediately revealing a kinship with American "regionalists" (usually Midwesterners) of the early 20th century, whose heroes are artists like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.
Like Benton or Wood, DiPietro depicts highly designed swaths of land, places where solid, curving shapes decorated with bright patterns and colors curl tightly around each other. The attractive exaggerations of the 1930s artists were a way to dramatize their rural environs in the larger context of an increasingly (and, to them, frustratingly) urban American art world. Cities still dominate art today, and while DiPietro lives in one, he positions his paintings in exurban places: Palouse, say, or Seabrook, where he stayed in a cottage for a week, shot photographs, and came back to his studio in Seattle to make the paintings.
In past works, DiPietro has employed a circular composition style popular in the Italian Renaissance, which feels more playful (sometimes distractingly so). But in Seabrook, the paintings are all rational-rectangular, which calls to mind not the history of painting, but photography and drawing. What come to mind are large-format photographs by Northwest artists like Eirik Johnson (Sawdust Mountain) or Adam Satushek, or the postapocalyptic drawings of Houston artist Robyn O'Neil. Like DiPietro, those artists capture eerie or outrageous scenes (a giant house on a platform for sale in a boat parking lot next to Interstate 5, for instance, by Satushek) in total deadpan and markedly un-telling detail.
The idyllic shapeliness DiPietro borrows from American regionalist painting has the same aura of nostalgia the real-estate developers are trying to create. But the scenery reveals Seabrook to be a surreal chop shop. Trees are hoisted up and hovering in mid-air, caught in an ugly state between past roots and future use. In Historic Cabin, two matching men throw a baseball. Its curve compositionally ties together new mega-cottages on each end and a tiny "historic" log cabin in the middle. The "historic" cabin is set behind a wire, not picket, fence, and appears to be empty save for a cyclops eye of light glaring out from its windowed door. The sky is about to open up into rain, and the ocean stretches away behind the houses indifferently.
DiPietro perverts scale—or does he? What is incredibly unlikely in appearance may be perfectly factual. In the painting Seabrook After Arbor Day, an old-growth stump is bigger than the whole houses it stands next to. But another, giant house in their midst makes nonsense of everything around it. The edges of the image are blurred, as if it were based on a snapshot. In this place, who knows what's documentary and what's pure invention?
Off in the dark corners of another, newer painting, Stream Rehabilitation, stars in the night sky sparkle as in a Disney fantasy, but beneath them hunch the dark bureaucratic visions of corporate park buildings set in hills of trees. This is not Seabrook, it's closer to Seattle: the Issaquah Highlands rising above I-90. These paintings are full of details, but the details don't draw you in, they pull your eye around the surface and then push you back out, playing with flatness. Flat and dry: two words never associated with the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The truths and lies are all buried together in these rehabbing hills.