Nature's Way

Unit B Gallery, San Antonio

Through March 7, 2009
by Wendy Atwell

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      Casey Roberts
      Kill Kill Kill Kill, 2008
      Cyanotype drawing
      Courtesy the artist and Unit B Gallery, San Antonio

      View Gallery

      Nature’s Way may sound like a brand of vitamins, but the vagueness and simplicity of this show’s title belies the artworks’ provocative content. Kimberly Aubuchon, who is responsible for the artist-run space Unit B, met three of the artists included in Nature’s Way during an Ox-Bow residency. Ox-Bow’s history strangely forecasts the show’s concern: humanity’s relationship to the natural world. The name “ox-bow” derives from the shape of a bend in the Kalamazoo River. A popular riverfront resort during the arts and crafts movement, the site became a lagoon in 1907 after the river was redirected along a more direct route to Lake Michigan. Following the loss of tourist traffic, two artists turned the property into an artists’ retreat. Since then, Ox-Bow has remained a “haven for artists” and is now affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

      Two large cyanotypes by Casey Roberts dominate the show. Made from a photosensitive process that dates to the Civil War era, the paintings appear bathed in twilight—that shadowy, transformative time of day when clarity slips away with the sun. Roberts’ graphic style lends a cartoonish menace to the scenes. In Kill Kill Kill Kill (2008) the title’s words are written in all caps over a freshly cut tree stump, surrounded by looming dark trees. Mysterious plumes emanate from the sides of the stump; they might be smoke from the chainsaw or they could even symbolize life force escaping from the tree itself. Two smaller cyanotypes of cut tree stumps are titled i did real good 1 and 2 (2008); the titles portray a flippant disregard for the destroyed trees and, consequently, the pictures possess the unnerving feel of a Hitchcock murder.

      In her small scale, delicate pencil drawings, Stephanie Nadeau captures the disappearance of nature due to development and climate change. A visual trickery occurs in Nadeau’s drawings. In Onward (2008), an orchard’s orderly rows of trees vanish as the rows progress from left to right. Another drawing of a tree, Pining (2008), is equally delicate, except in the center, which appears purposely out of focus. It suggests our “fuzzy” thinking about nature and our uncertainty about where it lies in our priorities. What does it mean to lose a single tree, and what are the repercussions?

      In a video by John Fleischer, wonderings (2008), a hand, writing with a stick, renders an invisible list on a white background. Most numbers and letters may be discerned from the hand’s movement (strung together, they spell each of the Seven Wonders of the World). But keeping track of the letters while listening to the scraping of the stick as it writes is an exasperatingly futile exercise. The frustrating evanescence of the words spelled out in wonderings—Giza, Ephesus, Babylon, Olympia, Halicarnassus, Rhodes, Alexandria—suggests that the passing of time and the forces of nature wear away even the grandest man-made constructions.

      What exactly is Nature’s Way? Several truths about it are suggested in this exhibition: impermanence, the immanent rhythm of cyclic time, and the cruel indifference of both humanity and nature. Nadeau’s foggy tree, a small example for a behemoth issue, encapsulates the careful negotiations between man and nature that result from these truths, and emphasizes the important role of perception in this process.

      Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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