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Exhibition Essay
June 5, 2023

Climate Change and the Art of Futurity: "Crafting Nature" Exhibition Review

About the Author
Maxwell Van Cooper

Maxwell is a writer, editor, and Public Library Assistant living in Philadelphia. They are currently the editor-in-chief of tk.collective. Their focus is on art critique and queer culture, and they write poetry, personal essays and other creative nonfiction. As an artist in their free time, they also practice photography, printmaking, and screen printing.

See the exhibition here

Second Thursday at the Crane Arts building is an event any art lover in Philly doesn’t want to miss— the InLiquid Gallery, held its opening for the exhibition, Crafting Nature. Viewers were clearly taken by the show, and at one point a small crowd formed around Jeremy Waak’s sculpture AGVC2v2. Crafting Nature is simultaneously a utopian and realist vision of man’s relationship with nature. Artists look at this tension, from collaboration and celebration, to acquisition and exploitation. Some artists engage with nature as a medium, while others playfully reimagine nature’s configurations and organisms. As climate change becomes more prevalent and all encompassing, the eleven artists in Crafting Nature urge viewers to envision ways forward while also reflecting on man’s cultivation of nature and its role in the arts.

Symbiosis is a recurring theme in Crafting Nature. Kimberly Stemler creates nostalgic oil paintings as she shows nature as fragments in memories; there is a sense of timelessness and recollection that appears in her pieces. It is a symbiosis between memory and nature, as if nature both prompts memory and preserves it. Golden Fields is a large oil painting midway through the show: it features a field set in dusk light, the sun nowhere to be seen but unmistakably about to set. The brush strokes seamlessly bleed into one another, giving the illusion of a hazily faded memory. It is this melding of memory and nature that creates a synergetic relationship between viewer, painter, and the natural world. 

Barbara Straussberg shows the symbiosis between art and natural decay; she uses the traditional Korean process of joomchi to create and sculpt paper, incorporating natural elements such as hydrangeas. Joomchi/Corset Four is made of handmade paper known as hanji, acrylic paint, paper lithograph print, and dried hydrangeas, it is a green and black textured paper that has been crumpled and shaped to life as a three-dimensional sculpture. The paper’s unique texture demonstrates nature’s reformation and cycle of growth and decay—it is almost as if the piece is caught in this cycle itself. Straussberg asserts herself into her art, using the traditional process to show the historicity of craftsmanship, and disintegration and reformation of nature.

There are symbiotic relationships within nature that can inspire new connections and understanding. Karen Hunter McLaughlin showcases mycorrhizal networks, examining the symbiotic transferences between plant and fungi to better understand how they share, connect, and rescue each other. In Macrocosm, an interference watercolor painting, there are colorful pathways that could represent mycelium, neural pathways, or the cosmos. These rhizomatic pathways often show in her work, as seen in Symbiotic Colony and Light Through the Forest. McLaughlin showcases these universal patterns found in nature’s physiology, highlighting the repetition of symbiosis seen in vital natural forms.

What can symbiosis look like between nature and artist? For Michele Randall, the sun is a vital player in the creation of her cyanotypes. In cyanotypes, the sun or UV rays acts as the developer for the photograph, producing beautiful shades of indigo. In Propagated Beauty, three young women in swimsuits hold hands as flowers arch before them. There is a stillness and nostalgia, evoking the feeling one gets when ruminating over a forgotten but found photograph. Randall uses cyanotype as a form of collaboration between nature and artist, synthesizing nature and chemistry, a process that recalls how flowers photosynthesize. It is these collective processes and representations that prompt the viewer to ponder creative ways we might collaborate with nature, even in the age of technology and globalized industrialization.

The artists of Crafting Nature do not all represent the celebratory curation of nature’s reciprocity, but rather illustrate man’s destructive exploitation of natural resources for capitalistic pursuits. Mary Powers Holt paints from memories of visiting a generational farm, where surrounding farmlands and woods were being developed. Her paintings demonstrate a sharp contrast and tension between land development and farming; in Woods Destruction for Development, the acrylic painting shows deforestation while a lone dog roams. Remnants of the developers and loggers are present: piles of gravel lie in the background, as orange safety netting and cut trees rest in the foreground. Powers Holt shows the devastating effect capitalism holds on nature, a sharp contrast to the paintings of generational farmers working their crops and land. Deforestation is an active part of the climate crisis, and Powers Holt reminds us that our forests are as vulnerable as the Amazon.

Many of the artists use natural materials in their pieces as raw material rather than representation, celebrating nature’s organic beauty and demonstrating nature’s ability to partake in the creative process. Francis Beaty creates minimalist compositions from found materials of nature, as assemblages of natural decay. In Silver Dollar Relic, the lunaria pods are clustered together in an amorphous shape like a cloud, with black seeds frozen in free fall. In all four of Beaty’s images in Crafting Nature, the actual natural remnants are highlighted against a bare white background. Beaty uses these natural materials as collage into something abstract and deconstructed.

Christy E. O’Connor showcases found natural material in a more maximalist approach; she creates time capsules made from cigar boxes and organic fragments, such as chrysalis, flowers, and bones. O’Connor transforms these memento boxes into abstract depictions of women’s archetypes, perceptions, and values. Memento 1 is a cigar box propped open with a small part of an animal’s jaw bone, dried moss at the edges, a paper wheel tied by a string hanging, a rusted nail tucked in. There is something whimsical and fantastical about the memento boxes; the raw materials showcase human intervention and cultivation of natural resources.

Found resources provide opportunity for interposition and transformation, as seen by Amy Sarner Williams’ work. She manipulates birch bark cultivated from her property in Maine beyond their natural state, and into tonal hues that comprise landscape images. Wave II is a collage of birch bark transformed into curvatures of the waves that almost seem to contradict the bark material. The precision with which each shape is cut shows Sarner Williams' expertise, and the result has an overture of something identifiable and familiar, yet fresh and original. Crafting Nature’s use of raw materials highlights the potential nature has to assist and manifest in art, and also challenges the concept that nature must resign to simply artistic inspiration.

The artists in Crafting Nature reimagine representations of nature into otherworldly science fiction; Kathran Siegal, for instance, creates painted wooden sculptures that reference plants and sea creatures, shaped into something almost alien. Remnants of Last Spring is a wooden sculpture of a pillar with a wooden flower almost precariously balancing on top. Pods of this flower lie in the divet center of the body of the pillar; while this flower and pillar are recognizable in Remnants of Last Spring, other bodies such as Curtain Call remain unnameable and unrecognizable. Siegal transforms these blocks of wood into organisms that render the imagination. 

Patti Dougherty experiments with the concept of a basic living organism, looking at universal forms such as nests, eggs, and one celled organisms—forms that represent continuous cycles of time, demonstrating both genesis and decomposition. In Acropora 2 jellyfish-like creatures cluster in the acrylic painting against a dark red-clay background, the same color that is the underbelly of the small creatures. Organized diagonally, the creatures seem almost animated, as if swimming through the red paint. Other creatures, such as Rough Cactus Coral 3 and Rough Cactus Coral 4, resemble caterpillars or parasitic worms; all of these creatures are a colorful cast in a familiar but new world that Dougherty has created for the viewer.

Jeremy Waak has always been fascinated with nature and industrial mechanism, and in Crafting Nature his two pieces Willow Oak Maquette and AGVC2v2 come to life in science fictional plant/machine hybrids. The perched sculpture, AGVC2v2, is made of stainless steel and brass wire frame – a synthetic creature of agave flower and industrial origin. These hybrid models of man-made nature serve as an idea of futurity during globalized industrialization. The artists who reimagine fantastical versions of nature in Crafting Nature provide a commentary on futurity and the creativity needed to combat climate change. They trade in ideas of technology enabling nature’s growth, evolutions yet to take place, and replace standards of how nature influences art.

Through reflections of symbiosis and exploitation, and reimaginations of the configurations of nature and the possibility of raw materials, Crafting Nature presents a diverse array of art. With climate change looming as an irrefutable future, the artists in Crafting Nature provide insight, curiosity, and an exposition on man’s impact on the environment. The exhibition offers new perspectives on the current crisis, and ideas on how to change our relationship to nature to move forward. There is an urgency in Crafting Nature: we must reexamine our relationship to nature, reenvision the way it shapes us, and reinvent paths forward. Futurity depends on the present.

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