Benjamin Chickadel:

Land of Pine Trees

at School of the Art Institute Gallery 2, through October 30

In this age of relentless environmental campaigns, messages about the natural world often seem redundant and worn. But Land of Pine Trees, Benjamin Chickadel’s stunning installation at Gallery 2, offers a refreshing look at the relationship between nature, art, and man. This exhibit–the third in six months for Chickadel, a recent School of the Art Institute MFA graduate–establishes his quirky approach to nature. “I make representations of untamed natural environments, untouched by human beings,” he says, describing the elegant scenes he constructs using wood, paper, and clay.

Nature may be the subject of Chickadel’s art, but reminiscence is its source. Born in Delaware, the artist moved with his family to Montana at age ten and passed his remaining childhood there and in Seattle. He spent much of his time in the wilderness, hiking and fly-fishing with his father and brother, so his art is personal, recalling the setting of those earlier times. But it also invites us to contemplate the human tendency to mythologize nature.

In Land of Pine Trees, part of an untitled group show of Art Institute alumni and students, Chickadel has manufactured an artificial forest from the real forest: nearly 1,000 paper trees populate an immense plywood tabletop. But what matters most about the scene is not its expanse–12 feet by 12 feet–or even the faux pines standing 2 to 12 inches above their bent-paper anchors. Rather, despite being arranged in a pattern that mimics the real forest, the installation seems designed to advertise its own artificiality. Individually cut from white card stock, the trees are left unpainted. The plywood also is untreated, its bare surface visible between the densely packed paper trunks. Standing over the installation, staring down at the web of shadows cast by the trees on the swirling wood grain, you’re struck by just how distant this replica is from the original, and by the possibility that this signifies a chasm between civilization and nature.

Chickadel deftly triggers this response. While most contemporary naturalists work to remind us that we’re bound to the environment, he seems preoccupied with why we feel so removed from it. Consider the small forest he built inside Gallery 2 last May, his contribution to the Art Institute’s exhibition of 2002 MFA graduates. Unpainted trees towering as much as eight feet above the concrete floor were sawed from plywood sheets; walking among them, viewers were confronted by two giant ceramic bears, rearing up on their hind legs with their fangs glistening.

Standing at the intersection of reality and artifice, what began as true wilderness had been transformed by the artist’s imagination into a storybook dreamscape: the bears were glazed a glossy red, the trees held together by bare metal hinges. The installation’s mix of humor and awe–you weren’t sure whether to laugh at the bears or run–was impressive. But most striking about the scene was that, like so much of Chickadel’s work, it reconstructed what we often want nature to be–beautiful, dramatic, and harmless–without passing judgment on that desire. It seems the artist’s chief interest is in how the process of representation, inevitably subjective, distorts its object.

Chickadel’s unpretentious art offers a welcome reprieve from the heavy-handed political messages commonly imposed on portrayals of nature: he’s dodged the stale anti-industrial sermon that bogs down so many young artists. Perhaps living so far from mountains and trout streams–Chickadel admits to feeling “displaced” in Chicago–has focused his attention on the inadequacies of memory and imagination rather than on the crimes of capitalism.

This psychological emphasis could be seen in a collection of sculptures Chickadel contributed to the group exhibition “Sculpture, Installation, and Photography” at the Bodybuilder and Sportsman gallery in August. Reflecting his admiration for Japanese art and design, these paper sculptures of moose, bears, and other forest creatures began as line drawings of the animals’ outlines only. He then cut out the line itself, producing a ribbon of paper perhaps an eighth of an inch wide, and hung the cutout from a single nail. Once suspended, they drooped into fluid caricatures, like illustrations from an abstract pop-up book. Drawn from memory, the animals were perfectly anthropomorphized: funny, engaging, and anything but natural.

But while these sculptures underscore the idea that all representations are ultimately subjective, it would be a mistake to lump their creator with the postmodernist hordes and their frivolous claim that no reality or truth exists. Though Chickadel does find humor in our subjective experience, he doesn’t celebrate the possibility that we’re separated from reality. Quite the opposite: in another original twist, his work actually laments this distance.

Land of Pine Trees illuminates this theme by suggesting that art is as fragile as the objects it depicts, thus returning us to the objects–the reality. Because Chickadel’s trees were cut freehand without a pattern their heights vary, producing gracefully undulating waves of treetops and giving the scene a cold grandeur. But that gracefulness contrasts with visible decay; many of the treetops, once sharp and pointed, now curl downward, branches sag as if burdened by our expectations, and here and there a tree has surrendered and tumbled to the tabletop. The combination of erosion and grandeur helps explain the installation’s unsettling power.

Our culture is obsessed with its ability to create artificial environments that approximate “the real thing,” and daily life takes place on a landscape constructed almost entirely of these facsimiles. Land of Pine Trees warns against overestimating the power of art–or artifice–to replace nature and direct experience. Amid the city’s tumult, Chickadel’s trees don’t replicate the natural world’s majesty so much as they remind us of it. Unlike the Montana forests, where humans feel dwarfed by the trees and awed by their seeming permanence, these delicate paper pines are obviously vulnerable and temporary, sparking a desire to visit the true wilderness, which may or may not be lasting. Unmasking artificial realities, Land of Pine Trees suggests that art and artifice can never be equal to nature or the fundamental realities it represents.