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at the Evanston Art Center


at Perimeter Gallery

The tradition of landscape painting–pictures with humans either absent or very small in relation to the whole–was centuries old in Asia and Japan by the time the great Albrecht Altdorfer painted, around 1500, the moody forest scenes often cited as the beginning of Western landscape painting. Attitudes toward nature have varied across cultures and across centuries; as our view of nature changed, painters rendered it in new ways. But landscape painting traditionally relates to nature through the same kind of illusionism other representational painting uses: the presentation, on a flat surface, of colors and lines that resemble a scene in the outer world. It’s not surprising that as modern artists began to question the whole issue of representation in art the form of nature art would change.

In the 1960s artists began trying to redefine the relationship of art to nature. “Earthworks” were large environmental pieces made out of the land itself–new materials and a new relationship to the land for the modern Western artist, if not for the Native American mound builders. At least one earth artist, Robert Smithson, created smaller gallery pieces that incorporated rocks in simple sculptural structures. In recent years younger artists have been moving toward an even more direct relationship between art and nature, with works that not only incorporate but also resemble natural objects. Two exhibits–“Artful Nature,” at the Evanston Art Center through October 28, and the show at Perimeter Gallery, which runs through October 10–provide an excellent introduction to this trend.

In the “Artful Nature’ exhibit, eight of the ten artists have included work in three dimensions. Of the two others, Peggy Cyphers offers mixed-media paintings that are dreamlike and evocative, while Jonathan Martin Rosen presents infrared nature photographs that suggest a kind of spiritual presence. The leaves in these scenes are sometimes stark white and the empty space sometimes bright; one feels one is seeing that which is not normally visible, a kind of forest essence. A comparison of these photographs–which still work by presenting pictures, however modified and subjective, of a reality that’s elsewhere-to the three-dimensional works in the show helps reveal what’s original about much of this art.

John Pakosta offers two installations. Nomadic Garden Element No. 2: The Trellis consists of a hanging nylon net with roses–dead, presumably shrinking–placed on some of the strings. The artist created it specifically for the site where it’s displayed: in front of a large window. The grid made by the window panes echoes the grid of the trellis, and through the window one can see trees, grass, and Lake Michigan.

Here Pakosta states simply and explicitly a goal of many of the artists in this show: the effacement of the centuries-old separation between art and life, between art and the world. The flatness and real or implied frame of a conventional picture, which allows one to view the picture as creating an illusion of the world that is separate from that world, is here replaced by art that lacks conventional boundaries and limits. These works are not complete in themselves; they are always meant to refer the viewer to the natural world they include and resemble.

At the same time, the artists all acknowledge their own humanness, and in most of these works there’s a powerful contrast, even conflict, between natural forms and more regular, human-made geometries. The trellis, for example, is a grid whose shape is quite different from that of a rose. Even more striking in this regard is a piece by Frances Whitehead, Platonic Solids and Failed Platonic Solids, for which she bent wires into geo metrical forms and grew gourds within them. Some gourds grew out to touch the wire and were shaped by it, even tried to outgrow it: in some places bulbous half spheres protrude from circular wire loops. One feels viscerally the conflict between nature and culture, the organic and the metallic. The “failed” solids are other gourds that didn’t grow to reach the wire, and these sit within their containers in irregular shriveled shapes, creating an even greater contrast. In this work the artist has included a once living thing as an essential part; these are not painted or sculpted representations of gourds, but actual gourds.

Plants are also an essential part of Tom Czarnapys’s solid blocks, in which plants and soil are visible through translucent orange glycerine. The glycerine is slightly darker at the edges of the plants, a color change apparently effected by gases escaping from the plants–a natural process has become part of the works essence. At the surface of the glycerine blocks, one can see a few twigs just protruding: the work is literally breaking out of its own form, much as Pakosta’s trellis leads the eye beyond it and through the window.

The largest work in “Artful Nature’ is the room-sized installation Ontological Library by Ron Leax. Rusting metal shelves contain books, many that have been soaked in brine, some that have been virtually destroyed by water. Some are encrusted with salt, some are still readable.

There are also rocks, jars of water and various slimy solids, small pieces of metal, and other materials. Of the books that are open, the majority are on scientific subjects. Leax’s point seems to be that the natural processes of decay will inevitably overtake manmade. objects and knowledge–a point anyone who has seen weeds in an abandoned parking lot already knows. But there is an oddness to the specifics of this installation, to the choice of materials, to the books caked with salt, that I can’t quite explain but that strikes me as as much personal and psychological as ontological.

In the Perimeter show, the work of Graham Marks, who is also represented in “Artful Nature,” is the most immediately striking. His untitled works are large, half-spherical, hollow ceramic pieces several feet in diameter. The lower halves are dark brown or gray with a very rough surface, not unlike tree bark; the upper parts are tan or pink and not quite as mottled, though they’re often cracked. These pieces seem designed to call up multiple associations without insisting on a dominant one: they are vessels filled with liquid, seed pods, split-open rocks, a broken-off part of a giant tree. In evoking not only a variety of natural objects but also the properties of some natural objects–such as the suggestion of a dark, hard, irregular outside and a softer inside-Marks strives to make his objects kin to objects of nature.

But the more I looked at his work, the more troubling I found it, largely because his objects all seem to have a certain look, even style, to them. For most kinds of art those could be words of praise; here the qualities of Marks’s pinks and browns, of his various textured surfaces, ultimately led my eye not outward toward nature, but back to the simple, limited sensual qualities of each piece–to the point where the work started to seem more decorative than expressive.

The same could not be said of John McQueen’s baskets and bark constructions. This is work that doesn’t immediately command attention and is never pretty, but is nonetheless made out of real respect for its materials. One feels a tension between the organic shapes of the natural materials and the forms the artist shapes them into. This tension is made explicit in two works that include printed text. Golden Rule takes the form of a long, hollow triangular prism constructed of small willow branches. Each face of the prism is a skein of in terlocking branches, as well as more regularly placed ones that form block letters and spell out short statements; one face reads “Human Nature Is Hoping Nothing Will Happen in the Mean Time.” There’s a wonderful tension between the irregular twigs and the regularly placed ones that make the letters-again, between the geometric and the organic.

Also impressive are McQueen’s constructions made of pieces of bark that are attached to each other with plastic rivets. The overall shapes of these pieces defy description. Manitou takes the form of a large, irregular doughnut with a very small center hole, but near the bottom it has a tapered arm or handle. The bark has many small holes in it from which branches once grew, as can be seen from the texture of the bark around these holes. These pieces have a presence that is powerfully ambiguous: they have some of the roughness and irregularity of natural objects, yet they’re riveted together; they have some of the worship-inspiring power of an icon, yet none of the otherworldliness of such objects. Instead, McQueen’s work stresses its continuity with the natural world.

The strongest artist in both shows is Michael Paha. A few years ago he exhibited some huge pieces at Perimeter: tanks and tubes and plants and flowing water combined to make whole ecosystems. His new pieces are smaller, and one is seriously flawed, but he still aspires to make work that deals with nature not by depicting it or by resembling it in some formal or structural way, but rather by including it, being a part of it, being continuous with it. Even the flawed work, The Shooter, in the Evanston show, reveals Paha’s strength.

This work, viewed from left to right, presents a series of terraria with soil and plants. The first few are verdant, but they become progressively more arid until we see cacti; the last one is filled with oil. To the left of the first terrarium is mounted a gun that points through all of them toward the oil. It has apparently been fired; the glass walls between the terraria have been shattered, though the walls of the terrarium with the oil have not. One infers that the bullet just missed causing an oil spill that would destroy everything, though the next bullet might not, and that the earth is poised on the brink of ecological destruction.

The strength of Paha’s work is in the statement he makes, and in his elegant presentation of nature in a gallery setting. The frames that surround conventional landscape pictures are revealed as human ways of thinking, as mental limits; past art consists not of the actual world but of the world transformed by the artist’s consciousness. By effacing the mediation of the picture frame or any implied mediation (Whitehead’s wire frames, Czarnapys’s glycerine), Paha seeks to redefine art as. continuous with the natural world. In this sense he is carrying to its logical extreme a tendency present in most of the work in both shows.

But the obvious “artistic” comment in The Shooter is a problem. By including the gun, Paha gives us an uncomfortable mixture of modes of expression. Six of the terraria have real plants and the seventh has real oil. The plants and oil are not symbols but simply what they are; the gun is clearly a symbol for the industrial world’s destruction–and a not very original one at that. It isn’t pistols that cause oil spills; a more likely culprit is the cars many will drive to get to this exhibit in its pristine lakefront setting. The power of Paha’s literalness–that he presents rather than represents nature–is almost completely undercut by this crude symbol. But if one can disregard the gun, the terraria remain–mounted and arranged with the precision of gallery art, but nonetheless powerfully challenging the whole history of illusionism and its attendant symbolism. In seeking to slough off that history, Paha also seeks to reconnect the gallery setting with the natural world.

What makes the effect of Paha’s art very different from, and far stronger than, the effect of a few potted plants placed about a gallery is his skillful, almost invisible use of artifice. Yet the specifics of Paha’s work generally point in the same direction: out of the work’s formalism, out of its “frame,” and toward the world of nature and process from which its constituent parts were drawn.

The five Paha pieces in the Perimeter show form a series he calls “Windows.” Rectangular frames of waxed but unstained basswood contain a number of shelves, most stretching from one side of the frame only part way across. On these shelves and on the bottom of the frame are placed sand, rocks, soil, dead and living plants, a small fish tank, marbles, garbage, a Drano can, and sundry other objects. In three of the pieces the elegant frames are partly chipped away, as if the wood were decaying. If old-master picture frames are often highly ornate to emphasize the painting’s decorative function while leading one into its space, and modern paintings tend to have the simplest of metal frames to concentrate ones attention on only the painting, Paha’s decaying frames seek to place his works in the context of natural processes, of organic decay. He frames his works not to unite them with an ornate baroque parlor nor to emphasize their isolation, but rather to lead the mind outward.

Within the frames the objects are arranged with an artist’s eye for order and contrast. But there are numerous ways in which the materials constantly lead one out of the composition, out of the window, and toward the world. Desert Song, for instance, includes recorded bird songs that come from an indeterminate place in the work. While most of its shelves contain discrete collections of objects, the internal order is violated by one dead trunk that begins at the bottom and continues through a hole drilled for it in the first shelf. Here Paha declares that the nature of his materials, the facts and forces of the world, takes precedence over his own formal, artistic ordering impulses. There are toy train cars on two shelves; one is on a track that ends at the edge of a shelf, where Paha has placed a bumping post, encouraging the viewer to think this is an actual train that needs to be protected from rolling off the shelf.

Maintenance includes a small water system that echoes Paha’s earlier, larger work. Tubes around the inside of the frame direct water through a tank containing two small crabs. A valve also allows this water to be dripped on the soil around several small plants. As in Desert Song, a tree trunk extends from the bottom through a shelf. Viewing the work, one is encouraged to contemplate the water cycle, the fragility of life, and how simply many life forms can be sustained. Indeed, it is more a celebration than a protest.

The largest piece, Modern Archeology, has various living and dead plants at its bottom, while two upper shelves are stuffed with garbage: candy wrappers chiefly, but also receipts, bottle caps, a button, and other detritus. At the left, wooden steps, partly cove red with sand and earth, lead toward a barred enclosure on the inner side of the frame that is filled with plants: the secret temple of a cult of nature worshipers? At the right, a wooden ladder ascends to the garbage-filled upper shelf (perhaps for garbage worshipers?). Despite the pieces enigmatic qualities, the juxtaposition of the garbage and the living and dead plants makes a subtler, and therefore more powerful, statement than the gun in The Shooter. Also, the candy wrappers don’t look very carefully arranged, but they’re delightfully colorful. There’s an interesting ambiguity here: one might infer that Paha’s point is that garbage threatens nature, yet the wrappers, unlike the gun, have a certain beauty.

At the beginning of the Renaissance a few artists helped effect a major change in human consciousness by creating–in painting, sculpture, and architecture–a new vision of man’s place in the world. With this man-centered view increasingly inadequate for many of us, it’s only natural to hope for an art that reevaluates and reenvisions the place of humans on this planet. I don’t know that I’ve yet found a Ghiberti of “eco-art,” but these artists do represent a beginning.