Trees Abound

by Ed Osowski

Seeing the Forest through the Trees
Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston
August 14-October 10, 1993

During the summer months New York galleries mount exhibitions that do little to tax the brain but do much to please the senses. One can almost hear curators breathing collectively with relief and saying, “Enough of theory! Bring on the pretty pictures.” Several months ago, I saw “The Body in Nature” at the James Danzinger Gallery. This exhibition was filled with delightful, haunting, and in some cases, downright-sexy images of people out-of-doors. It was also filled with the subtle message that there were better things to do that to look at art. An acquaintance recently described me to a quirky exhibition of photographs, titled “On the Elbow,” at the Witkin Gallery in which over 50 photographs called attention to that under-appreciated anatomical feature, the elbow.
On first viewing, “Seeing the Forest through the Trees,” which opened at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum during the Dog Days of summer, it appeared that Lynn Herbert took her cues from this New York tradition. Herbert’s curatorial selections avoided intellectual engagement for something simpler, purer, and more direct—the enjoyment of seeing a group of skillfully selected works with one goal in mind—to charm the viewer with a very limited glance at how some artists, most working today, have depicted trees. But in her selections a subtle intellectual argument emerges, an argument that takes its cue from the earliest work in the exhibition, Edward Steichen’s Trees, Long island, 1905. Steichen’s work ins beautiful, a fine example of the photo-pictorialist effort to establish photography as an equal partner with other arts. “seeing the Forest through the Trees” used as its critical vocabulary the modernist claim of Alfred Stieglitz and his followers in which the medium is of less importance than the image and idea presented.
Of the twenty-six artists included in the eexhibition, thirteen were photographers. And in the installation of the works—fifteen photographs and thirteen pieces in other fields—the photographic images were equal to the etchings, paintings, and pieces of sculpture capturing what Herbert called in published notes the “Sense of lawlessness [that] the rules have been thrown out, order as we know it has been turned upside down, and a sense of abandon awaits.”
Working within the confines of the CAM’s somewhat restricting Gallery Two, Herbert turned the room’s limitations into an asset. The works were arranged with the same dense, crowded feel one finds in a forest. It was also an installation keen on setting up visual echoes.—allowing the Steichen to speak to an equally stunning Sally Gall photograph Untitled, 1984, which, in turn, seemed caught up in conversation with Sylvia Mangold’s 1990 etching Pin Oak. Earlie Hudnall’s Strangler Fig Tree, 1990 and George Tice’s 1970 Oak Tree, Holmdel, New Jersey, were small photographs but rich in feeling and seemed partners with Page Kempner’s delicate bronze In the Garden…Counting to Ten, 1993. Hudnall’s work, in turn, was balanced with Lucas Johnson’s small 1992 painting Untitled (Marie le Veau).
The works by Hudnall, Tice, and Kempner made it clear that less can be more especially when set against Rodney Graham’s three enormous sepia prints of British oaks (all from 1990). Graham prints his images large—approximately three by five feet—and hangs them upside down. Those two facts alone make them of interest. Including three works by Graham—the only artist so singled out—was Herbert’s only wrong step. For size that conveyed significance one contrasted the Graham works, inflated and self-important, with Frank Marton’s the oldest and Wisest of All Trees in All The World, 1993, a magnificent photographic monoprint, its surface a dense, almost abstract web of pattern and mystery.
Photographs by MANUAL Skeet McCauley and Peter Brown remind the viewer that trees—as the most obvious symbols of the natural world—exist in a world that is threatened. They raised issues more pressing than one found in the “romantic” images that dominated the exhibition. To varying degree these four realized that irony is necessary when viewing a natural world under attack by economic and political forces.
One could question how Herbert made the leap from Steichen’s 1905 photograph to Tice’s 1970 image with no stops between them. But her purpose never seemed to be to provide a scholarly overview of her subject. One could just as easily have wondered why other photographers—Alain Clement comes immediately to mind—who have worked with trees as subjects were not selected. And one could also have wondered why Herbert did not try to place her works within a larger tradition of the “landscape” or why her interest in raising ecological questions was so fleeting. But these were minor concerns. “Seeing the Forest through the Trees” was a summer show, one that deserved close attention to its parts, and not to the absence of a shaping or defining thesis.
Ed Osowski is president of the Houston Center for Photography and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.