The ironic title for this group show comes from an art therapy developed by psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. They called it Attention Restoration Therapy (ART), which prescribed spending time enjoying nature. This, the Kaplans theorized, re-energized mental functioning through “soft fascinations,” a subtle engagement with sky, water, and landscape in place of the hard focus necessary to negotiate fabricated environments such as cities and interiors. The artists in Soft Fascination employ a wide vocabulary of natural shapes, and even living things, but the results are anything but “soft.” These artworks challenge notions of what constitutes nature, and our place in it; in other words, this is art for the Anthropocene. Their esthetic belongs not to the beautiful or sublime but the uncanny, where nature and artifice mirror each other in unexpected ways.
On ViewElijah Wheat Showroom
September 7 – October 28, 2019
A dominant strategy for the three pits decorative symmetry against the dynamic patterns of living forms. Jolynn Krystosek pushes this opposition in her sculptures that combine luxury materials such as gold and velvet with animal remnants such as bone and shells. Untitled (2019) is a column of vertebrae stacked at varying angles along a brass rod. The flat ends of the vertebrae are topped off with black velvet. The high contrast between the painted bones, augmented with alabaster, and the black velvet creates a rhythmic pulse, which keeps the eye shuttling up and down the column across the openings and flanges of the bones. Unsettling, as skeletons are, yet pleasing to the eye, Krystosek’s bone column seems neither artwork nor science display but some as yet unspecified hybrid. A similar work, Untitled (2019), a column made out of oyster shells, bones, and gold, silver, and copper leaf, looks more like an artwork, and so lacks the tension that makes the vertebrae sculpture so absorbing. Her works on paper, collages of felt, metal leaf, and painted strips, read as abstract art inspired by plant motifs, which makes sense since many have Seaweed in their titles. They have optical appeal but less conceptual bite than her sculptures.
Heidi Norton’s sculpture looks like someone mated a terrarium with gigantic microscope slides. The Museum Archive (dedicated to Edward Steichen's Delphiniums, MOMA 1936), Version 2, (2019), consists of five 56-by-32-inch glass panes standing in a row five inches apart. On them, Norton has glued living plants (an orchid and a cactus among others), plastics, gels, and photographic film stock, including one of the eponymous delphiniums. An ingenious piece, it not only addresses the crumbling boundary between artifice and nature in our epoch, with the plants becoming part of the glass and film, but also adds the dimension of time. On the one hand, there is the lifetime of the plants, some dead, some dying: time as something lived. On the other hand, the five panes of glass also suggest time as something we capture in discrete frames, as Muybridge first did, ushering in the age of moving images. In the Anthropocene, the distinction between lived and captured time has eroded further as personal experience becomes increasingly mediated through technologies such as virtual reality and social media. Norton also includes three photographs, her original practice, out of which grew the sculptures. Beautiful but inscrutable, Ellipse with Spirals (2019), has bits of plants and more nondescript elements floating in pale blue ether. There is a sense of layering here, as well, but all compressed into one picture plane.
Out of living Reishi fungus, Erin Laroque makes tapestries, a series she calls “The Fruiting Bodies.” She takes industrial hardwood byproducts, which she molds into shape, and injects with mycelium, the non-fruiting part of the fungus usually hidden from view. Humans and fungi, the chief agents of decay, humans have always had an ambivalent connection, which Laroque zeroes in on with this series. Typical of the series, The Fruiting Bodies (Time is Passing) (2019), has an attractive pale background decorated with dark brown stenciled flowers. It looks pretty, but the mycelium is rotting the wood underneath. If any life forms will benefit from the Anthropocene, it will be fungi. Fungal rot will play an increasingly important role in future ecologies as the accelerating die-offs of plants and animals from climate change will provide more food than ever.
The Soft Fascination in this show is not the one the Kaplans envisioned. Rather than gentle therapy, this show feels more like a dose of tough love telling us to buckle up, as nature comes under increasing anthropogenic influence. The truth is nature will only get weirder, and our relationship to it will only become more complicated and difficult. Art has a role in helping us come to terms with this new reality. Norton, Laroque, and Krystosek have done their part.