Seeing the Art for the Trees

August 7, 2015

CHICAGO — In the entire history of art, how many works depict a tree as their main subject? The answer is probably incalculable, but even attempting to imagine it makes the mind dizzy, like trying to grasp the mathematical concept of infinity. Yet in two group shows in Chicago, one sees a range of artists wringing new meaning from our leafy friends.

In Roots, at Linda Warren Projects, 18 artists were invited to show work that illustrates their own relationship to trees. As evidenced by a catalogue of short artists’ statements that accompanies the show, many of the artists have personal associations with trees, while others use the tree as a formal pictorial or sculptural device. Thus we have more or less straight depictions of trees in paintings, photos, and sketches by Tom Torluemke, Tom Van Eynde, and Brenda Moore; small paintings of evergreens in lurid, Pop-art colors by Chris Uphues; and whimsical paintings in which cartoonish characters pose in the middle of forests, as in Nicole Gordon’s “Curiosity Often Leads to Trouble.” That painting seems to be a form of throwing one’s hands in the air when confronted with the long and weighty tradition of landscape painting, almost as if poking fun at the whole enterprise. Better and more convincing responses can be seen in the more abstract works, such as Emmett Kerrigan’s sculptures or Nina Rizzo’s paintings, which both use different dimensions of wood pieces and play around with their weight in space. The wisest moves seem to occur when artists forgo color altogether: Joseph Noderer’s “Bigfoot Creek” is a tall canvas of interlocking monochromatic shapes that nevertheless uses strong contrasts to imply different colors; and in Michiko Itatani’s “CTRL-Home/Echo,” the artist has forsaken representation altogether and made an image that looks totemic.

Seeing the Art for the Trees