Rossitza Todorova’s new exhibition, Learning to be Lost, currently on display at the Metro Gallery in Reno City Hall, explores the Nevada desert landscape as a site of projection. In a series of paintings, accompanied by one video piece, Todorova presents a landscape that we can empty ourselves into. The desert landscape in particular has an emptiness that feels like an invitation. It will accommodate us without ruffle or ripple. Todorova’s work is alive to this: both the allure and melancholy of emptiness lies in how accommodating it is.
The majority of this work complicates the landscape with obstructions or insertions. We’re presented with a vista, the sky often dominant, and interposed between us are sections of reflective material. The material recalls the mylar used for emergency survival tents, or space blankets meant to ward off hypothermia—that last hedge of industrially manufactured millimeters against the elements. They occlude a part of the forward view, but rather than being impediments, they could be seen as portals or frames—cut or folded into triangles, diamonds, squares, circles—introducing a stark geometry that contrasts with the more organic forms of the landscape beyond them. In a conversation with Todorova, she talked about her complicated response to the marks left on the landscape by roads and mines. She is of course aware of the ecological implications of such activity, but finds it, at the level of line and shape, quite beautiful: “That geometry is so exciting in the landscape.”
The interjection of the reflective material—for visual reference for her paintings, she purchases craft supply mylar—helps Todorova concretize her conception of the landscape as a place where past, present, and future are all invoked on the picture plane. The scope of the open landscape requires a certain presence, a “being-in-the-moment”—while also implying the journey you took to arrive there, spooled behind you in the past—and presenting the vista before you as at a potential futurity, a place that beckons your arrival. The mylar brings the element of the past, the backward look, in front of us, reflecting where the viewer has been—though the warp of it distorts that into ribboned and ambiguous light, color, shadow. Todorova’s video projection, titled “I asked, and the world opened,” provides more clarity to the backward look—in the roughly hour-long recording, we observe a round mirror set down in the Truckee Meadows at sunset. The camera is pointed east, towards the rosy, darkening landscape—while the mirror catches the silvery blue luminescence of the western sky. It’s a simple, effective tableau that captures a bit of the mystery of simultaneity—the circuit connecting departure and arrival, and the lag between them where we exist.
I asked Todorova about the qualities she found particular to the Nevada landscape. Her first point of comparison comes from Bulgaria, where she lived until she was 10, when her family moved to Reno—and the other point comes from Arizona, where she earned her master’s degree at Arizona State University. She responds to the Nevada desert in its sense of expansiveness and solitude. “Recently it’s been an interaction with the sky, … these amazing painted skies that are always surprising,” she said. “I’m shocked at the color or the shape of those clouds… the closeness of them. I feel like the sagebrush desert itself, with its little punctuations, [gives such a] different texture than the rock or the mountains. … In Arizona, the desert is so punctuated with different kinds of flora and fauna and saguaros—and somehow the Nevada desert feels so much cleaner.”
Her first encounter with the desert landscape, coming from Bulgaria, was something of a shock. As a young student, the outdoor training she received through her school helped open her up to it. The hikes and lessons were tuned toward survival strategies—this is how to start a fire. How to use a compass. How to find your way by the constellations. This is how you put a bag over sagebrush overnight, to capture condensation to drink the next day. But it also sensitized her to the aesthetics of the desert: “You saw the landscape with all the nuance—and what used to feel like just brown was all the sudden violet, and green, and yellow. When I saw green, it’s subtle—a subtle emerald or brown-green color that happens within the rocks, or when something is blooming, or when the light shifts just a little bit, where you don’t have bright light, but a diffused light, and the landscape pulls out so much – it pulls out subtleties.”
Beyond these broad brushstrokes, there are also the particularities of more localized zones. Having recently camped out at Black Rock Desert for the first time this summer, I felt a particular pull toward Todorova’s painting “Black Rock Mirage.” The qualities of light and space I experienced on the playa were very distinctive – a stretching and collapsing of space, where scale is difficult to fix. Weather rolled in with streaked dark clouds and rain, tossing out crinkled threads of lightning, and the ground immediately changed its texture from a flat solid to a sucking mud. When things dried out, the dust grew bright and in the distance was pulled up in a series of monumental spirals of wind, a miles-tall colonnade set to drift – holding up nothing but the transparent entablature of the air. At sunset, my shadow was dragged away from my feet like taffy, the outline of my head and shoulders arrowing to the far mountains – until swept off the playa by the eraser of ridge-shadow at my back, which the sun pushed forward in its final lapsing.
In Todorova’s painting, she plays with flux and mirage, using three circular shapes to both focus and unsettle the eye. Each circle functions as a sort of lens. Moving from left to right, the first lens seems clear, and the second seems to reveal a cloudscape imported from some other time, as well as the watery shimmer of a heat-mirage on the desert floor. The third invokes the mylar material, capturing and liquefying the pink and blue light that drops, like a gradient, from the sky that lies behind the compass of these lenses. The playa is represented by bare unpainted canvas. Todorova talked about Black Rock in relation to blankness: “There’s a weird purification in terms of Black Rock Desert. … It’s not a space that allows you to be anywhere but there. It’s treacherous enough that you have to keep your wits around you. … It’s really freeing. It’s a blank slate—but a blank slate that feels like you can’t do anything to it. Burning Man does that a little bit—but even full of people, full of art installations, that place seems so vast, that you can never fill it. Your imagination changes out there.”
Another zone addressed in her painting is the dry Winnemucca Lake—in “Tufa Tower, Winnemucca Lake” we have an exception to the geometric application of the mylar. Here the material is bunched up, as if it intends to mold itself into the form of the tufa towers that extend from the leftward edge of the canvas. The sage desert, mountains and sky beyond appear as a fissure between those two bulky forms. The tufa were created when the area was underwater, submerged by pluvial Lake Lahontan, in the Pleistocene. Underwater springs emptying into Lake Lahontan brought calcium to the alkaline lake waters, making formations of calcium carbonate.
The tufa at Winnemucca lake hold the oldest petroglyphs identified in North America—various investigations place their carving at somewhere between 10,000-14,000 years ago. When Todorova saw the petroglyphs, those thousands of years accordioned, and she could imagine those long-gone artists looking out over the landscape, standing at the tufa, climbing them, arranging themselves so that their hands and tools had access to the rock. The landscape was different back then. It was not a dry lakebed at that point, but it provided enough solidity, enough material authority, to allow her mind to do a bit of traveling.
That human annotation, scratched on the canvas of geologic time, is different from her experience in Bulgaria, where the past unfolds itself as palimpsest. Bulgaria has been a crossroads between Asia and Europe, and each successive empire sank its foundation upon the crown of its predecessor. As Todorova put it: “If you dig just a little bit, you’re going to hit so much antiquity … Roman, Greek, Byzantine, the Ottoman Empire. So much history under your feet. Layer by layer it’s there. Here it’s harder to find tangible clues to the history has happened in Nevada, and that makes it easy for us not to think about that past, because the landscape is so pristine.”
The small traces extend beyond the petroglyphs, and Todorova is, in fact, looking for tangible clues. She recalled one of her outdoor education classes, where they climbed on boulders around Donner Lake, and the teacher pointed out marks left by the Donner Party. “They showed us there were still rope burns where they pulled the wagons up the boulders in order to get past. It’s still a line burned into granite. And that kind of mark is fascinating. But it’s really easy to look at the landscape and say, ‘No one here before us discovered it’ instead of looking at what impact has happened.”
How do you take a beautiful landscape, and make it more than “pretty”—drifting its way to the wall calendar, the screen-saver or laptop background—where it settles as the faint toothache of the natural world, inserted into the maw of the office cubicle? Todorova is working over this question, not from a reflexive postmodern cynicism about “beauty,” but rather as an acknowledgement of its insufficiency. She is attempting to address beauty not as a surface, but as a substance. I take Todorova’s complications of the landscape—the interpolations of lenses, reflections, distortions—as a declaration that, despite its affectation of eternity, something did in fact happen here. Perhaps it happened at the scale of a civilization, or perhaps it was at the scale of an individual life. To turn to the title of her show, Learning to be Lost, perhaps what “happened,” ultimately, was that something was lost. Erasure is also a kind of event.
Who, in these paintings, is looking out over the landscape? Are we looking through Todorova’s eyes—or through the eyes of any human being, or animal, at all? Perhaps it’s the landscape that looks over its shoulder to catch a glimpse of itself—and, improbably, actually catches that glimpse.
Learning to be Lost, a solo exhibition by 2022-23 Reno City Artist Rossitza Todorova, is on view in the Metro Gallery in Reno City Hall through Aug. 4 with a reception on July 13 from 5-7 pm.
Photos courtesy of Rossitza Todorova.