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Excerpted from pages 22-27

G O I N G    N A T U R AL

By Kathleen Whitney

Western artists have long had an intense interest religious and artistic practices. Although much cultural cross-pollination has taken place, a fundamental and unbridgeable difference exists between the contemporary Western view of nature and that of the East. In the West, and particularly in the United States, nature is sentimentalized. This is not so much a consequence of its being an industrialized and technological society, as much as it is a result of inheriting the European/English perspective which views nature as a force to be controlled, made useful, tamed. Nature is perceived as outside civilization, an annoyance that must be lived with. Nature in most of its forms is also seen as outside of aesthetics. As far as their artistic expression in sculpture is concerned, the forces of nature have not been a major thematic part of Western art imagery.

This basic attitude has extended to the materials of art - whether stone, wood, or clay, Western artists have regarded their materials as means to an end, not necessarily as elements with a particular characteristic or nature that should be basic to the ultimate expression of the object. The Modernist, Bauhaus's dictum of truth to materials, has boiled down, as far as natural materials are concerned, to not concealing them with some finish that might conceal their natural origins. In the West, materials bear little meaning or reference in and of themselves except within the basic broad dichotomy of man-made versus artificial. The revival of interest in crafts has only obscured the issue. The view and usage of art materials swings between the two poles of woozy romanticism or unemotional pragmatism.

In contrast, the Eastern view, particularly in Japan, has never perceived nature as an entity separate from man. Nature is seen as being like man, even as sharing in man's emotions. This view has contributed to the strong Asian sense of reverence for nature and natural beauty. Such a relationship could be described as simultaneously religious and aesthetic. For example, in traditional Japanese painting landscape is seen as a metaphor for the path to spiritual enlightenment. It is also seen as a metaphor for relationships. Different views of Mount Fuji could symbolize different aspects of a love relationship; the north view referencing cooling ardor, its eruption symbolizing sexual passion. Within this tradition, there are strong associations of change with renewal rather than deterioration. This perception of the cycles of life, without an emphasis on death as end, gives rise to the Eastern tendency to view reality as fluid rather than fixed and to the notion that temporality is a part of objects. These attitudes have determined the way space itself is experienced. As can be seen in any major Asian city, space and spatial relationships are unstandardized and un-predictable. The lack of grid configuration as a means of organizing public space has led to the conception of particular spatial nuances in contemporary sculpture in which relationships are both intellectual and sensual.

Forest Retreat front For over a century, contemporary and traditional Asian art practices have exerted a strong influence on contemporary arts in the West. All aspects of design have been affected; architects from Wright to Gehry have shifted their Eurocentric ideas regarding form and geometry towards conceptions of space far more Eastern in orientation. The arts of Japan have become a particular focus of interest for Western sculptors. Of these Japanese practices, those using natural materials seem to have been the most influential in no small part because of their incorporation of folk and craft-based arts. Traditional practices such as Ikebana (the art of flower arrangement), the uses of paper, wood, bamboo, rock, and plants have had an enormous and largely unremarked impact on contemporary Western genres. The absence of a central mass, the ubiquity of the circle, the importance of empty space, the Zen demand for simplification, the influence of calligraphic painting are all derived from Eastern thought ` and have had tremendous influence on Western art.

In Japanese sculpture the literal reality of the sculpture as form, substance, texture is nearly always important but this reality co-exists with an abstract, often spiritual, meaning for which the object serves as sign. Japanese sculpture is concerned with parts rather than wholes, with momentary conditions, and lacks concern for permanence. In contemporary work, these preferences often result in objects that are installational in nature rather than fixed-mass vertical sculpture. The very notion of the installation is deeply oriental and may have its origins in traditional multi-functional uses, from domestic space to furnishing.

The perception of an impending environmental crisis has also had enormous impact on the imagery, conceptual context and use of materials employed by Western sculptors. This on-going reality may have prepared the territory for incorporation of Eastern attitudes into Western aesthetics. In a way unprecedented by any previous art of the 20th century, this crisis has caused 'nature' itself to become part of the thematic, imagistic, and cultural material from which artists draw their subject matter. The threat posed by environmental pollutants has led to a vast change in attitude towards materials, particularly those that are organic in origin. Since the inception of pro-environmental activism in the United States, artists have viewed nature in ways that depart from the Western attitudes of exploitation and marginalization. The damage to forests from acid rain, the loss of natural habitats, the poisoning of water supplies are all events that have resulted in a significantly altered way of perceiving the relationship between man and nature. The materials used by eco-conscious sculptors bear meaning that is external to their inherent beauty. They make reference to conditions that exist outside of the object itself; incorporating a range of notions including nature as a construct, the organization of urban, suburban, and rural ecosystems, the limited nature of natural resources, etc. I have selected five American sculptors for this article - Nick Abdalla, Sherry Owens, Pat Warner, Roy Staab, and Allan Rosenfield. Their work has little in common formally, yet all make objects from natural materials and all are influenced by Asian values concerning nature.

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For the past 20 years, Pat Warner has been making artworks that metaphorically explore the relationship of humans with the natural environment. Her work combines a reverence for the natural with a consciousness of the great gulf between nature and mechanized culture. These artworks are characterized by her unique way of manipulating certain elements; of combining the organic with the inorganic, geometry with what the French philosophers DeLeuze and Guttari refer to as "arboreal logic". This is an intuitive and interconnected way of developing form that refuses to privilege Euclidean logic above the logic of nature. As a consequence of this highly sophisticated and carefully crafted process, Warner creates hybrid forms that are simultaneously 'natural' and highly artificial. Her use of natural materials underscores their beauty and employs a fact from which they are generally separated: that they are unique and irreplaceable resources.

Warner's work is typified by this combination of aesthetics and hard environmental fact; natural resources are both vulnerable and diminishing in availability. Because of the way in which she manipulates her materials, she reconnects these materials with their sources. It is common to forget this association; the wood used to make a chair or a sculpture is known to be wood but is so totally transformed from its origins that it seems to have only the slightest relationship with trees. Warner's installations have universal application: they create a space that stands in for, and symbolizes, any number of 'real' spaces. Her work is derived from a desire to restore the relationship between the physical ground and the humans who inhabit it. Her work is not motivated by sentimentality, but by the simple desire to create discussion, provoke thought, and expand the potential of reality. Her circles of trees with their interwoven branches and density of structure are meant to provide a space for meditation or to serve as an alternative to whatever reality its viewer has wandered in from.

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Assimilationism and hybridity are hallmarks of late 20th and early 21st century artmaking. Since the beginnings of the 20th century, artists of what was once called "the Far East" have taken in and used what is resonant to them of the Western artmaking tradition. The history of Western art is similarly accretive and assimilationist. The colonialists are inevitably changed by contact with "the other." To state the obvious, cultural pluralism now reigns in the arts around the world. Borders between cultures are no longer fixed but fluid, transparent, rife with cross-pollination. Musical forms and decorative tropes which once characterized a single region and were cultural hallmarks now turn up on radio stations or decorate apartments half-way across the world from their points of origin.

What is of the most interest are those aspects of another culture that strike a chord, that vibrate with some local cultural sensibility and determine what is borrowed and what is not. At this point in the emerging aesthetic globalism, it is still possible to tease out the origins of local aesthetics. In the unlikely event that the canon of European art history continues to be the basis for comparison and valuation, it may be neither possible nor interesting two decades from now to still be able to trace intercultural influences.

Because it is a direct reflection of social concerns, the interest in the United States in assimilating Eastern attitudes towards nature comes at a particularly contradictory time. It is both strange and highly symptomatic of deep cultural skepticism that American artists of the early 21st century should turn their attention away from the seductions of techno-art towards what remains of the natural world. Transplanted Eastern philosophies fill the void once totally occupied by American pragmatism, the seductions of technology, and the loss of the primal relationship to nature.

All of the sculptors mentioned in this article make no effort to transform or camouflage the nature of their materials. Although they clearly modify the way in which wood or bamboo occurs in nature, these interventions preserve the integrity of the material and underscore its origins. The taking on of Eastern attitudes towards these materials neatly dovetails with their own Western sensibilities. It is a union rather than a pastiche, a genuine marriage of sensibilities.