Nestled between the Schuylkill River, I-676, the Parkway, and surrounded by a cityscape filled with cultural institutions, Park Towne Place Residences would seem to be an unlikely place to house an exhibit focusing on nature. And not just nature, but the woods in particular. What is it about this particular location, where the woods seem so far away, both physically and metaphorically, a place so accentuated by the surrounding bustle of the city, that make the notion of woods so poignant? Like a drawing by Escher, where the foreground and background of our visual field get mixed up, could it be that focusing on the woods against the city backdrop makes it all the more powerful, more worthwhile and necessary to explore? Or is it that the woods are an irrelevant place, a faraway Shangri-La that has no relevance to clogged highways and exhaust fumes and city culture? The tension between the need to appreciate and protect the environment seems to sit in stark contrast to the push for human progress, as exemplified by the urban surroundings. Many of these ideas are creatively visualized in an exhibit currently on view at Park Towne Place (September 2019- January 2020), titled Into the Woods. This art exhibit showcases several contemporary artists around this theme of the natural environment, the woods.
Part of InLiquid’s rotating exhibitions at Park Towne Place Museum District Residences, the exhibit, curated by Lauren Addis, thematically segments the works into three parts. The Park Towne Place South Tower Gallery is organized around the theme Elevate, and the West Tower and the North Tower around the themes of Meditate and Submerge, respectively. These names allude to the ideas of the silence, stillness, and spirituality of the deep woods and the waterways within them. Using materials obtained through nature, as well as varied man-made materials, each artist conveys a facet of our complicated relationship with the natural world, fraught with ambivalence, hopefulness, and regret. In addition, the viewer’s own interface with each work creates an added depth, a universal dimension, to these personal artistic visions. The amalgam is a complex portrait of man’s relationship to the natural environment, a relationship that seems to illustrate the resistance of the wildness of nature to truly be tamed.
Brent Crothers’ large, imposing work is prominently displayed in each tower. Crothers, the son of a plumber, bought twenty acres of undeveloped forest in Maryland when he was just twenty- four years old. These two details, coupled with the tragedy of 9/11 two weeks into his graduate training, seem to inform many of the themes of his work. A larger than life elegant egg shape, a traditional symbol of rebirth, entitled Water Wars 2 sits in the North Tower. It is in its entirety made up of used garden hose. This seems to capture the hopeful idea of repurposing and transforming our past used materials to create a fresh start. As Crothers states in an article by Cara Ober, discussing a similar work entitled Synergy: “…fresh water in the world is dwindling at a rapid pace. If, one hundred years ago, we had started being more conscientious about how and what we did with our fresh water, we might not be in this situation.” On the other hand, perhaps it is also expressing regret at how we could have managed differently. This work seems to showcase the spirit of transforming our detritus to initiate environmental change.
In the West Tower, an intriguing work by JoAnne Schiavone seems to further capture the idea of the environment versus human progress. A work entitled Tidal Pools looks like a boardwalk, interspersed with clear plexiglass covering rectangular scenes of ocean and sand using photographs, pallets, plexiglass, plastic crochet, and water. We can see pieces of the beautiful shoreline, looking so natural and approachable, yet entombed behind plexiglass and surrounded by a manmade boardwalk. Perhaps this conveys man’s encroachment on the natural world, transforming it and attempting to tame it in the process. By attempting to tame it, it seems to fundamentally lose its essence, its wildness. A corollary is that as we change nature, entomb it, we change ourselves and our place within the natural world.
Kristen L. Bell’s work Silver Elk seems to further question our relationship to nature. This stunning work, oil on canvas with silver leaf, displayed in the South Tower, depicts a large silver elk, looking directly at the viewer, on a picturesque shoreline with other brown elk congregating in the distance. As indicated in the exhibit pamphlet, “…Kristen applies many layers of translucent oil glaze to create a visual language of pattern and depth that is both evocative of a place and tells a story of emotions and more ephemeral experiences.” The surreal, gauzy, washed out appearance of this work has a dreamlike quality, as if we are separate, outsiders to this natural scene, as if this singular silver elk, so elegant, unique and proud, is unapproachable by us. Are we really part of this world, or is the wildness and beauty of this scene unapproachable, untamable?
Two other artists in this exhibit, Kevin Broad and Barbara Straussberg, further capture the strength and beauty of nature. Broad’s large abstraction in the North Tower, titled Mackerel, made with pigmented resin on fiberglass, seems to play with glimmers of light, creating a beckoning, dancing, vibrant scene. It is as if the viewer, so small in comparison to the enormity of the canvas, is invited into another world, a world of sparkle and lightness and unseen energy. He states: “Awareness of the ebb and flow of form in a changing light is key to all possibility.” Similarly, Barbara Straussberg’s Hanji paper and lithographic print collages, titled Joomchi/Large Trees Five and Joomchi/Large Trees Three, explores the essence and beauty of nature. These two works seem to evoke a sunset or the blaze of autumn against the backdrop of sparse trees, capturing the timeless beauty of the woods.
In the sage words of Edward Abbey more than fifty years ago: “A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature…has the curious ability to remind us- like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness-that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship.” Maybe it’s simply a matter of perspective. Like Escher’s dizzying drawings, perhaps instead of our human needs, our consumerism and materialism perpetually being at the forefront at the expense of nature, the foreground really always was and always will be the natural world. And the background? It’s our little human lives. Despite our thoughts to the contrary, nature truly has primacy. On the other hand, perhaps we are simply part of this natural backdrop, with no foreground, no background, just one all-encompassing “ground,” that of the natural world. We just need to stop and look more closely at its magic. All of this captured wordlessly and strikingly in this exhibit on nature in the heart of the city.
Into the Woods is on display September 2019- January 2020, Park Towne Place Museum District Residences, 2200 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia.