Trees and Other Ramifications
Structure of Thought 15, 2001-05
Inkjet print and mixed media
Collection of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
Branching, both as natural phenomenon and as cultural metaphor, is the subject of a current Johnson Museum show. “Trees and Other Ramifications: Branches in Nature and Culture” comes from The Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kansas – where it was organized by curator Stephen Goddard – and has been supplemented with works from Cornell. Goddard specializes in works on paper and “Trees,” mostly in black and white, has the same bias.
Several images stand out for their raw beauty. Both Doug and Mike Starn’s large-scale inkjet photograph Structure of Thought 15 (2001-05) and Jacques Hnizdovsky’s modestly sized woodcut Copper Beech (1985) present flatly silhouetted monochromatic tree-forms. The elaborate material support of Structure is typical of the Starns’: a grid of waxed and varnished papers glued together and stretched over a frame. The warmly colored and translucent sheets make the tree(s) ghostly, free-floating. An intended analogy between branching and thinking is robustly embodied (other photographs in the series show neurons). In a related but distinct way, the detailed and impeccable line drawing in Beech conveys a sense of outward movement in tension with the static overall profile.
Arboreal metaphors for lineage have a long history. Among many examples here is a diagrammatic Tree of Life (1860, lithograph and letterpress) by none other than Charles Darwin. This elegant piece of information design, the only illustration from his groundbreaking Origin of Species, diversifies upward in splitting dashed lines. Similarly, Ad Reinhardt’s polemical cartoon How to Look at Modern Art in America (1946, offset lithography) parodies Alfred Barr’s schematic attempt to chart the roots and branches of visual modernism with a more literally drawn tree. (A print by Darwin’s evolutionist colleague Ernst Haeckel is similarly literalist – the stiff line drawing not among his more captivating images.)
Treescape as pastoral endures, despite being closely tied in Western art with the 18th and 19th centuries. Although as subject as any genre to cliché (think of images on posters and calendars), the best work in this vein is difficult to deny. Numerous pieces here attest to this. The dense accumulation of fine hatchings that make up Franz Von Stuck’s (1890) etching Forellenweiher (Trout Pond) make up a shadowy space pierced by light coming from between trunks. The receding perspective of these trees – reflected in the water – penetrates an otherwise flat image. A pair of recent drypoints by Donald Resnick – Shoreline (1997) and Woods/Morning (1998) is similarly atmospheric.
But some of the most exciting work here takes the viewer into less familiar territories. One of these “other ramifications” is a gelatin silver photograph by engineer-photographer Harold Edgerton, a close-up of the White of the Eye (taken 1979) showing a network of retinal arteries and veins. Camera blurring, particularly in the foreground, helps create a delightfully ambiguous space. (It also suggests a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of vision.) White has been provocatively paired with Tanaka Ryohei’s skillful and intricate etching Trees #3 (1974), an idiosyncratic orchard scene with exaggerated perspective. The dense overlapping of the knotted trunks and branches echoes Edgerton’s ocular vessels. (Augustus Knapp’s 19th century wood engraving of a medicinal rhizome is also worth comparing.)
Another pairing of “others” is similarly fascinating, if more opposed in its approaches. Both images show plants as botanical specimens. Karl Blossfeldt’s (early twentieth century) gelatin silver Erygnium Bourgatii shows a starkly silhouetted leaf. The spiky form has the look and feel of Gothic architecture filtered through the artist’s characteristic detachment. William Sharp’s (1854) color lithograph illustration Lily Leaf, by contrast, is drawn with great detail. Featuring an overall dull reddish tone, it shows the underside of the leaf with an admirable eye for the plant’s intricate structure of ridges and branches.
Elliott Erwitt’s gelatin silver Bearded Man with Tree, Venice, CA (taken 1979) makes a comical analogy between its two foreground “figures.” A scruffy fellow and an also-bearded palm seem oblivious to one another. In the background: a gable with a row of windows, antennas, wires.
It would have been interesting to see more three-dimensional work such as Cornell professor Jack Elliott and students’ sculptural VanRose benches. Named after pioneering Cornell Home Economics professors Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose and crafted from the stump of a sugar maple recently cleared in an expansion of that college (now Human Ecology), the symmetrically arranged pair both preserves and enriches the natural beauty of the roots and trunk.
Despite this eclecticism the overall sense conveyed by “Trees” is one of traditionalism. It would have been good to see more offbeat and aggressively contemporary work with the visual presence of the Starns’ or Edgerton. Still, this is an engaging show able to provoke hours of viewing and thought.
“Trees and Other Ramifications” remains on display at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art through January 2nd.