Visual Arts

Natural Instincts

Mother Nature is no pushover. Nudge gently and she'll deliver food, fresh drinking water and fossil fuels. Take too much and she fights back with hurricanes, earthquakes and tidal waves, as the world has recently relearned. The impact of humanity on nature is the focus of "DeNatured," a collaborative effort from artists Melinda Bergman, Sue Chenoweth and Carrie Marill at The Icehouse.

It's a quietly powerful exhibition. Wall paintings depict abstracted bloodied seals and endangered whales. Piles of ceramic driftwood share space with discarded Christmas trees salvaged from trash bins and transformed into retro sculptures. These three artists seamlessly integrate nature and industrialism in a way that we, as a species, have not embraced.

Take Marill's As a Matter of Fact, The Image Has To Be Understood Phenomenologically, for example. The background of the piece is a harsh, glaring white that visually connects with the sterile walls of the Icehouse. From this cold emptiness, a menagerie of bold, detailed birds emerges — an eagle, a heron, a pink flamingo — all so finely detailed and perfectly modeled that they appear to have flown out of a bird-watching manual. It's a beautiful image. But its depth flows far beyond soft brush strokes and Marill's grasp of color and shading. The birds appear at first to be joyful and free. A closer inspection reveals their claws are bound with colored strings. In the same way a tethered falcon is tied to his master's glove, we are all tied to our homes, our cars and our material possessions. Our freedom is an illusion.

Chenoweth's conceptual art is more difficult to grasp. Her Farallon Islands is a distorted topographical map of an island chain off the coast of San Francisco, scrawled in graphite on paper. A pile of red flocking, used in model railroad construction, forms a symbolic pool of dried blood in reference to the area's history as a seal fur trading post. Her work is abstract and chaotic. But, as in nature, it's chaos with intent. A tree sprouts branches in random patterns, yet it always grows toward sunlight. Chenoweth's canvases seem splattered with random shapes and forms, but the images inevitably draw back to the theme of man's impact upon nature.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Bergman's Pretty Teeth, a large-scale sculptural installation that resembles a molecular model. Dowel rods connected by painted wooden balls stretch like tentacles in all directions, reaching for neighboring sculptures and appearing to pass through the floor and up again. It's a daring, uninhibited work. The fluid movement of the "tentacles" above the pitted concrete floor lends an organic feel. But the complexity of the sculpture makes me think that if this were an actual scientific diagram, it would describe something manmade; perhaps a chemically synthesized fuel or a simulated diamond.

It's not a collaborative piece in the traditional sense, as Bergman did all of the painting and assembly work on the sprawling model. Nor is it a solo effort. A swatch of Chenoweth's Pretty Little Trees meanders underneath the structure's limbs, in essence becoming part of the model. And Marill contributed the white lacquered tree stumps that serve as supporting beams.

Bergman is primarily a wood artist, Marill has great mastery of traditional gouache techniques, and Chenoweth, for this exhibition, at least, is obsessed with using model railroad supplies. In "DeNatured," these lines blur. The exhibition feels like one giant installation that speaks to man's natural instinct to mold his surroundings to fit his own needs. By collaborating on this central theme, rather than creating solo work to highlight their individual talents, the group is able to drive its point home in a powerfully visual way.

We may cut down forests to build concrete towers, but nature will always find a way to grow pretty little trees through the cracks.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden