CULTURE KLASH: Natural Education

By on June 28, 2017

Poignant lessons from nature hang in new show.

‘Bark Framed No. 5’ by Maria Elena Gonzalez.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Sometimes, nature inspires art. Sometimes it is the art itself.

For Cuban-American artist María Elena González, birch trees became her medium of choice in 2005. While teaching at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine, González spent her mornings overlooking a lake on campus. She paid special attention to a fallen birch tree, and noticed how the patterns in the bark resembled music. It looked like the tree had written a song.

For the next seven years, González figured out how to bring that song to life on a pianola. She flattened the bark, found its striations, made a rubbing, and scanned the tree’s DNA onto paper that could be laser-cut to play through a piano player.

Pieces of González’s “Tree Talk” series are now featured in Tayloe Piggott Gallery, including two tracks of the music the bark makes played on a video monitor. The show, “Mapping Matrixes Music,” opens 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 28. Visitors will have the chance to see, and listen to, González’s whole artistic process.

The music sounds a little like atonal jazz, gallery assistant Sophie Schwabacher said. In an interview with Artnet News, González said she had “no expectations whatsoever” about the outcome of her project. “It was an amazing thing to hear the first time—and it’s still an amazing thing to hear. It’s such an incredible composition with musical rifts that repeat in different keys.”

González is a multi-media artist, but is best known for her “architecturally-informed sculptural work,” Schwabacher said. Her tree songs are no different.

“She views the sound itself as sculpture,” Schwabacher said. In each piece, González shows a different part of the creation process—like an architectural sketch come to life. “It’s so architecturally informed,” Schwabacher said. “The way she thinks through it, it’s almost like an outline, a blueprint … that’s what you see in her work is really her thinking process.”

From a framed piece of bark, to a complete roll of music, to a recording of the music itself, every step of González’s process is carefully detailed and on display.

It took seven years for González to finish her first song. The second took just a year and a half. It’s a steep learning curve because González invented the process herself. “It’s been something that she’s spent so much time really thinking about. There’s so much dedication to invent how to hear the tree,” Schwabacher said.

Now she works with her art students in San Francisco on her newer pieces. The birch trees she spent time with over coffee back in Maine have become the focus of her last 10 years of work.

González’s work is on display alongside Jane Rosen’s sculptures from her show “Red (Rufuous)” and pieces from Rakuko Naito’s “Tearing Rolling Folding.” Naito, who will be at the opening, is a Japanese “optical painter” who creates three-dimensional paper sculptures with traditional Japanese paper. His process focuses on the natural elements of the paper, Schwabacher said. Any lines in the paper are a result of burning incense and letting the paper react. 

Rosen, meanwhile, has a longstanding relationship with Tayloe Piggott Gallery, but this is her first show in three years. “She’s such a deliberate and thoughtful artist,” Schwabacher said. “Jane really cares about all the animals she’s portraying. She’s concerned about their environments, and our destructiveness.”

Each artist has their own space in the gallery, but their work is connected by a “quiet contemplation of nature and natural elements,” Schwabacher said.

Naito works with natural materials. Rosen’s sculptures are all inspired by the red-shouldered hawk and its natural color—each sculpture is deeply concerned with the animal and its environment. And González has invented a way to capture nature’s song.

In a place like Jackson, Schwabacher said, their audiences have a lot to learn and connect with. “The artists are all so patient,” Schwabacher said. “They’re all really attempting to learn from nature, and have dedicated years to learning what they can from it. That’s one of the amazing things they all have in common.” PJH

Mappings Matrixes Music opening, 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 28 at Tayloe Piggott Gallery. All three artists’ work will be on display until August 4.

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