Earlier this summer, I sat by a roaring campfire with friends. It was late at night, and our mood was silly and fun-spirited-we could’ve been in high school again. A gorgeous, immense green moth came flying out of the woods and landed on a boulder just shy of the flames. My friend’s quick-thinking (and moving) husband swept it up and back into the forest. About half an hour later, the moth returned, this time headed directly for the fire. We witnessed its swift demise, groaning with a combination of awe and shame.
Our relationship with nature can feel like that moth, but in slow-motion. The pull of the blue light from our cell phones and tablets becomes ever more tantalizing. We don’t care whether it affects our sleep. We don’t care whether we’re neglecting our spouses or our children. This nervous energy from being physically parted from the earth and psychically parted from each other is visible in the art we make.
In the past three years, when I jury group exhibitions or sift through entries for calls for exhibitions, more than half of the artwork, and much of the strongest work, depicts our fraught (doomed?) relationship with nature. Free Association 2015 is our annual group exhibition of current work by our Associate Members, and that current runs through much of the show. A few other local group exhibitions also reflect both the volume and the quality of this moment of unease in our cultural mood, including Landscape as Fetish next door to Kingston at Gallery Kayafas, and Arcadia: Thoughts on the Contemporary Pastoral at Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts.
At Free Association, several artists create complex meditations on their relationship with nature. Susan Emmerson’s work, A Gift to Our Children, is a watercolor painting and a sculpture of found objects. The painting depicts the found objects, so we see two matching knots of plastic bottles, coffee cup toppers, aerosol cans, and other cast-off items. In her statement she says, “We know on some level that we are impermanent but don’t often acknowledge it. The objects in the piece are more physically permanent than the humans that created them.” Emmerson chose cheery primary colors that draw us in and belie the cautionary tone of this memento mori.
Nat Martin’s Wayside Tangles photographs use digital photography and image editing software to layer several of his own photos to create a single image. He captures fallen branches and root networks that have fallen into the water. The resulting complex forms have a dizzying effect. In a sense, Martin’s own camera becomes the unreliable narrator, using exaggeration in order to share the effect of what it may be like to walk through dense and boggy wooded areas. In his statement, he speaks of how the rot and decomposition in these wooded settings is simultaneously beautiful and anxiety-provoking. The photos have a fractal quality, as any spaces that may appear flat at first give way to further reflections of the branches in the water.
Laurie Miles lives near the ocean, and the tidal marsh informs her work. She transforms envelopes, tape, and plastic into elegant works with embossing and copperplate printing. Her grid of six works are centered, with varying embellishments creating diagonals in the margins that are difficult to see in the image on this post (go see them in person!). They possess a restful sense of completion and resolve. Miles says she absorbed the daily rhythms of the tidal marshes filling and emptying, and her observation is evident in the work and serves as a foil to Martin’s photographs.
Meghan Chase, Wendy Seller, and Rachel Thern capture and abstract both the effects of nature and animals (including people). Jamie Bowman, Erica Licea-Kane, and Jane Lincoln focus more directly on people and their chosen media. Throughout the entire spectrum, we see a group who balances the tactile with the psychological, letting us into their process (both the thoughts and the making), with visible brush stokes, carefully chosen colors and textures, and hints at intriguing stories.