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Nature's Ways Inspired These Complex Works

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This article is a part of KCET and Link TV's “Summer of the Environment,” which offers a robust library of content on multiple platforms from June-August intended to ignite compassion and action for helping to save and heal our planet.

No matter how curious and seductive the virtual world gets, there is an irrepressible human need for the actual, experiential, physical and phenomenological. Technology creates a tsunami of informational simultaneity and universal connectivity, but also has a paradoxical effect of personal isolation and cognitive noise pollution. As we engage the world through tiny, flat, bright, mediated portals at lightning speed, our capacity for slower, perhaps quieter, richer, riskier, direct, durational intimacy with the real world suffers.

These artists choose to take the long way around, to meaningfully make their own techniques needlessly hard on themselves, eschewing shortcuts and redefining the term “process-based.” They practice radical patience in their creative output and thereby infuse their art with inherent meaning in its form beyond the aspect of aesthetic content.

What is the opposite of a Google Watch? Is it a messy ceramics studio? A vinyl record? A polaroid camera? Dadaism? Arte povera? For these artists, with influences from Mark Dion to Andy Goldsworthy, Ernst Haeckel to John Muir, the answer grows in a garden of wilderness.

Flowers in Nick Taggart's wild garden | Courtesy of the artist
Flowers in Nick Taggart's wild garden | Courtesy of the artist

Nick Taggart, along with his wife and collaborator, the ceramicist Laura Cooper, has lived on a magically fecund hillock in Glassell Park for several decades, first alone and then with Cooper for whom the enchantment of this wild, civilized, peaceful, fractal place was an early part of her future partner’s charm. Both their individual and collaborative works operate in myriad conceptual, theoretic and even academic strata, but in matters of spirit and material, experience and imagination, it is all about seeing life through a botanical lens, with a garden’s logic, at a tree’s pace. Taggart in particular speaks eloquently on the relationship between his outdoor (gardening) and indoor (studio) practices, between which he more or less evenly divides his daily time and his creative attention.

Nick Taggart: Artist and Gardener | Umon Kawamura

Though he’s not always been known to draw forms of garden life (plants, insects, birds, hybrids) Taggart has always carried through an essential philosophy of radical attention to small details of ordinary existence — a way of seeing the world which truly finds its epitome in botanical allegory. In a way, his chosen medium of large-scale pencil drawings is also a self-evidently durational, intimate way to work. When he describes his garden for example, as “not orderly, with rough edges, verging on wilderness in places…” he could be describing the aesthetic of his own drawings. Or when remarking on “Little things that are big things,” he might be speaking of the constancy of slight shifts that animate growing beings, or his penchant for inversions of macro/micro scale, exaggeration of detail or suggested, gestural marks that punctuate his empty atmospheres.

Nick Taggart's "Love in MistDevil in a Bush" | Courtesy of the artist
Nick Taggart's "Love in MistDevil in a Bush" | Courtesy of the artist
Nick Taggart's works on paper | Courtesy of the artist
Nick Taggart's works on paper | Courtesy of the artist

Catherine Ruane does not live in a walled garden, but rather at the edge of an unkempt wooded foothill, home to rattlesnakes and fire danger. But it is actually just such places of congress between the wild, untended botanical world and the land of human stewardship, decorative and agricultural, that has held her interest since early childhood. She grew up in a place along the complex border of nature and cultivation and remembers being startled by the realization that native plants thrive without and even despite human intervention, whereas cultivated plants require constant support to survive at all. “That seemed an interesting paradox at eight years old,” she says. “Indigenous plants became a muse of sorts. The desert being vast and perilous did not hinder these fragile, brutal and foreboding plants. In my adult life, I see the metaphors are out there. Perhaps the desert reflects a formula for not only survival but the ability and intention to thrive. I do have a garden,” she says, “and I try my hand at growing roses and more cultivated things, but I also plant lots and lots of native plants and try hard to stay out of their way.” Ruane readily admits to the clear connection between her studio efforts and her botanical subjects; the simplicity and slow experience of large-scale graphite drawing is very much like the slow, consistent developing/maturing process of a plant. “I often think,” she muses, “that my media are paper, pencil, charcoal and time.”

Ruane’s current exhibition at Lancaster Museum of Art and History is a project that had occupied her for nearly a year — a series of drawings describing the symbiotic relationship between the Joshua Tree and the Yucca moth. There are 12 small drawings encircling a large central drawing of a Joshua Tree blossom (Yucca brevifolia). The Joshua Tree is a very slow-growing and long-lived life form; and again as with Taggart one can easily see the physical allegory of the large-scale drawing process and the patient botanist. The Joshua Tree blossom is pollinated by a particular species of moth which is designed to collect the blossom's limited supply of pollen despite the plant's lack of nectar. The significance of the moth is the symbiotic relationship between this little short-lived bug and the long-lived Joshua Tree; if either goes extinct, they both will. The tiny moth is pictured at the top of the large round drawing, suggesting the Holy Spirit seen in Renaissance paintings such as Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” (the one with the converse mirror and tiny roundels featured in the background) was a specific influence in “Dance Me to the Edge.” The idea of the circle is of course the encircling connection of life and death and the sense of forever with no beginning and no end. And in fact the most obvious compositional reference in this piece is to a standard clock face. At the museum, crowds could be seen gathered beneath it, no so much looking, as watching.

Catherine Ruane "Dance me to the edge" | Kristine Schomaker
Catherine Ruane "Dance me to the edge" | Kristine Schomaker
Catherine Ruane's "Constantine" barbed wire pinning back desert blossoms | Courtesy of the artist
Catherine Ruane's "Constantine" barbed wire pinning back desert blossoms | Courtesy of the artist

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For her part, Jenny Yurshansky takes a rather more overtly conceptual, semiotic, systems-based approach to the botanical allegory. In fact, her non-botanical work is primarily devoted to analyzing and exposing the imperfect methods of classification through which humans tend to experience the world. To be clear, she also spends a lot of time quite literally out in the field, being no stranger to either muddy hillsides or rarefied research archives. Her most recent project cluster called “Blacklisted,” centers around the historical movements of native versus invasive plant species in the Southern California region. This is, quite obviously, available as an allegory for human migration and cross-cultural pollination. Asked how she navigates the balance between a detached science and a more personal or emotional narrative, or what she calls “the empiric and its tension with the poetic,” Yurshansky refers to fundamentals of her overall practice. “The works that are part of this project deal for the most part with the language of science and classification. My goal with each of the pieces is to disrupt, question, and dismantle those supposedly unbiased systems by turning it back in on itself. To do that I use the formal language of institutional display systems that are found in natural history museums, botanical archives and the time-based recording quality of photography based on observation.”

Pitzer College is about to release a book (“Recollections,” the culmination of the “Blacklistedprojects), written from the "first-person" individual perspectives of the alien-invasive plant species that she collected from California's blacklist. This final element of the project uses botanical resettlement as an allegory for human migration since we are the main causal reason why these flora cross borders and travel from one region to the next. “As our companions in these journeys,” she says, “I wanted to give voice and an anthropomorphic awareness to each of the plants so that they could offer us insight into their experience of being considered desirable at one point in time, re-establishing themselves in a new land, and the dismay of being put on a blacklist. It is, at turns, absurd, melodramatic, sorrowful, sentimental and humorous.” She wanted this portion of the project to be an intimate experience of individuals rather than a homogenous collection of abstract non-natives. “These stories are also a space where it is possible for me to peel back the layers of California’s history through colonization, displaced native cultures, waves of immigrants from various parts of the world, the projections of idealized cultures onto this landscape and the residue and impact of these shifts on our attitudes and expectations today.”

Jenny Yurshansky's "Blacklisted: A Planted Allegory (Punctum)" | Alexandra Pacheco Garcia
Jenny Yurshansky's "Blacklisted: A Planted Allegory (Punctum)" | Alexandra Pacheco Garcia

The first inkling of this project came from observing the border-flaunting proliferation of weeds and wondering what was the root of classifying them as undesirable and how that would correlate with similar attitudes towards people. She became interested in digging into the cultural biases that play a significant role in formulating lists like this. Growing up in comparatively diverse Southern California, where all of the people that surrounded her were immigrants and/or first-generation Americans like her own family, she knew that she would make California the focus of this research at some point and see how the impact of waves of migration and the projection of an idealized landscape reflected cultural shifts in values and norms.

Yurshansky says the biggest surprise has been how much this topic keeps opening up new areas of inquiry and discussion for her. One key moment along the way happened at the Rancho Santa Ana Herbarium during one of her extensive research deep-dives. Looking through the pressed plants, she found a newspaper article from 1936 pasted to the page of a Kikuyu grass specimen (also described as Devil's Grass), whose title was "Giant Grass Menace to be Hit," describing the evils of this invading grass from Africa. It didn’t take much imagination to connect to what the subtext was.

Another moment occurred at Harvard's natural history museum looking through their archive of materials related to the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka who spent fifty years working on the collection of lifelike botanical glass models there beginning in 1886. They have the letters that Rudolph, the son, wrote home during his research journey in California from 1892 describing the landscape and the people including the Chinese laborers in the field with their long ponytails — and his desire to finish with the “wild gypsy life of field research and return to the quiet of the studio.” Something that Yurshansky can by now completely identify with.

Jenny Yurshansky's "Succession (2016)" | Alexandra Pacheco Garcia
Jenny Yurshansky's "Succession (2016)" | Alexandra Pacheco Garcia

Speaking of decades in the California wild woods, meet the photographer Sant Khalsa, a self-described eco-feminist whose “current” project “Growing Air” focuses on an expansive forest of approximately 1,000 Ponderosa pine trees she planted during the spring of 1992 as part of the effort to reforest Holcomb Valley. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the tree plantings, she is spending time in the now-forest, conducting creative research and producing new works. “My intention is to create artworks that express an intimate association with the forest that is grounded in my life-sustaining connection with the trees through the breath (exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen) and water stored and moving through the forest and our bodies,” she expresses. Twenty-five years ago, she was invited to produce new work for the thematic group exhibition “Smog: A Matter of Life and Breathcurated by Edward Earle and Kim Abeles for the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside. Each artist in the exhibition was paired with research faculty at the UCR Air Pollution Research Center. At the first meeting with her collaborating scientist, Khalsa asked, “What is the best thing I can do as an individual to positively impact air quality in the Inland Empire?” He said, “Plant trees.” She planted trees all summer. One of the most memorable of those days in Holcomb Valley was May 2, 1992 because a small group of her New Genres art students participated in the plantings while the Rodney King riots were occurring in South Central Los Angeles.

Sant Khalsa's "Growing Air" | Courtesy of the artist
Sant Khalsa's "Growing Air" | Courtesy of the artist
Sant Khalsa's "Growing Air" consists of 1,000 Ponderosa pine trees she planted 25 years ago | Courtesy of the artist
Sant Khalsa's "Growing Air" consists of 1,000 Ponderosa pine trees she planted 25 years ago | Courtesy of the artist

She returned to the site of the seedling plantings for the first time this past summer after 25 years to find an extraordinarily beautiful and healthy forest of 6 to 8-inch-diameter, 30 to 40-foot high pine trees. “It was a very emotional moment for me,” she recalls. “Standing within a forest I had planted. Being in the forest reminded me that the experience of planting the trees had been a significant catalyst for my life path and direction of my artwork since that time.” She sees her actions then as meditative, restorative, aesthetic and on the edges political also — a formula which she has refined and developed over years of photo- and performance-based works. As part of the forest revisitation, she will present on-site field experiences that engage the audience/participants through interactions with the forest and “the most basic and essential actions of conscious breathing exercises and drinking of water to bring awareness of the interdependence among themselves, the trees, and our complex and sensitive ecosystems.”

“Of all the paths you take in life,” said John Muir, “make sure a few of them are dirt.”

Top Image: Jenny Yurshansky's "Blacklisted: A Planted Allegory (Incubation)" | Courtesy of the artist

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