Riverside, CA
Mechanical forest reveals real trees
ON ART Column by
Devorah L. Knaff

It would not be fair to say artist Pat Warner is lying to us with the pieces in her current show at the Fullerton Art Museum on the Cal State San Bernardino campus.

Rather, she is engaging in something that appears to be deception but is in fact one of those reverse psychology tricks that parents are always trying on children with little success. They seem to work much better for artists on their audiences.

The show, "Gurgle, Weep, Flow," consists of a sparse and highly mechanical forest in which the trees are made of a clay-like substance that forms their trunks, and the leaves and branches are crafted from springy coils of beautifully silvered wire.

The effect is anything but natural. Not in texture, form nor overall aesthetic feel do these arboreal forms remind us of anything that we have actually seen in nature.

And yet we recognize them instantly as trees - and this instinctive and immediate leap between these mechanical creations and real trees is precisely what Warner is asking us to think about.

Kathleen Whitney, in her written commentary on the show, notes that Warner is distancing herself from the common artistic tendency to romanticize nature. But here is where that deception - or reverse psychology - comes in. By creating an image of a forest that is in fact so aggressively anti-romantic, that is in fact nearly post-apocalyptic in its aesthetics, she summons to our minds the most romantic images that we in fact have of the natural world.

We see her trees of twisted wire and lifeless clay, dripping with silently fowing water that in no way nourishes them or anything else, and we feel the immediate urge to deny the reality of the vision that she is putting forth. No - we say - this is not a tree, this is not the way the world is.

And so we stand in the gallery and conjure up the smell of earth and water dripping off pine needles. It is this ability of humans to invoke what is missing in our world that provides beauty to the most impoverished life.

But this same ability to let our imagination take us walking through woods that are not there tends to make us less vigilant than we should be, as Warner's work reminds us. Because we can see the forest and the trees even when they are no longer there makes us all to likely to forget to fight to make sure that the real trees are allowed to remain.

Other exhibits

Also well worth a visit is the current show at Pomona College's Montgomery Art Center in Claremont. Including work by a dozen artists, "Post-Landscape: Between Nature and Culture" addresses many of the same issues that Warner's work engages as each of the artists investigates the ways in which humans interact with what is left of our environment.

These investigations range from the literal and even scientific, such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation's schemata of the ways in which land can be used, used up and conserved, to the highly metaphorical, such as Sant Khalsa's ironic riff on the way in which we treat different kinds of water, acting as if we will all be just fine as long as there's enough Evian in the Stores.

Kim Abeles has recreated idealized visions of a California in which the land seems infinite, limning in clear skies and tumbling waters and rolling hills of older landscapes by using smog to paint gray and brown stains. While Warner's work allows us to flee to our romanticized images of nature - even as we look back over our shoulders, Abeles never lets us imagine that things are not in fact a great deal worse than they seem.

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