On a warm summer night in southern Utah, Ryan Kish and Conor Thompson were feeling restless.
They found an abandoned mini-golf course behind their otherwise unremarkable motel, and sat there drinking beer and looking up at the stars. The only thing more expansive than the sky above them was their anticipation for the road trip ahead.
The two friends began talking about the status and significance of art, a conversation that would continue after they had returned to their separate coasts. Kish is from Portsmouth and Thompson lives in Los Angeles, where he’s halfway to a master of fine arts degree at the University of California.
That night in Utah was the first stop of a cross-country drive, scouting locations to paint en plein air, compiling work and words for a two-person show. The result is “In the Road,” on view through Jan. 5 at Buoy Gallery in Kittery.
It’s more than just an art show, although that’s enough. It’s also a story about the archetypal American road trip and American landscape painting, about meeting a best friend when you least expect it, and, more quietly, about losing one of the people you love the most.
Kish and Thompson met through a mutual friend a couple of years ago, while Kish was still attending the Museum School in Boston.
“I was 29 at the time,” Thompson said. “I felt like I had met everyone already and I wasn’t expecting a new best friend. But when I met Ryan, it felt immediately like I had known him my whole life.”
Some of that might be because Kish “belongs to another time,” Thompson said, but mostly it’s because of the quality of conversations they are able to have, both literally and through their paintings.
The title of their exhibit is clearly a play on Jack Kerouac’s famous novel, and not to be taken too seriously. But it’s appropriate for the trip and their experimental, in-the-moment approach to painting.
“You don’t really know what to expect until you’re in the space,” Thompson said. “You’re experiencing it, not just being in it.”
They both preferred the epic, natural landscape of the West to the homogenous cornfields of Middle America, but they didn’t simply paint horizons. Instead, there are cars in driveways, power lines, and modern ruins.
“I think the paintings are kind of dealing with describing a modified landscape, not just a raw one,” Kish said. “They’re addressing architectural space within a modified landscape.”
They spent hours painting in a former gas station parking lot in the ghost town of Green River, Utah. The next day, they painted clusters of houses beneath the mountains of the Continental Divide, in Georgetown, Colo. They spent two days in Omaha, Neb., where they painted in a public sculpture park.
The artists had no intentions of distilling the history of landscape painting into these works, Thompson said. They focused on their own experience and on documenting a scene in real time and color, before the light fades.
Early concepts behind American landscape painting include depicting a national identity, romanticizing our experience, portraying an abundance of natural resources, and suggesting prosperity.
Thompson and Kish didn’t idealize any setting. As a result, their work is specific and relevant, even within the context of a cross-country road trip, a commonly shared American experience.
Of course, they carried with them the imprint of every painting they’ve ever seen, and the techniques they use have precedents in American realist traditions. But the view they provide is that of any contemporary realist thinker who sees a ghost town where once there was gold.
They completed the trip in nine days, painting almost every day. There was no time to lose, because Kish’s mother was struggling with cancer. When he returned, he spent much of his time caring for her until her death.
But, the conversation about art continued and became a short publication to accompany the show. In it, Thompson considers all the places they’ve been and the various paintings they’ve made and asks, “Where do we locate the art in that?”
Kish writes, the art is the two-person show, viewed both as individual pieces and together.
“In the Road” is on view at Buoy Gallery, 2 Government St., Kittery, Maine. Gallery hours are Tues.-Sat., 5 to 10 p.m.