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Natural art always has a bit of the human

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com | @JordanGreenYES

Thanksgiving weekend occasions a suspension of the regular cycle of arts activities — the artist receptions, openings of new exhibits, films, lectures and various festivals that pair up with food and music. It’s the beginning of the season of reflection, and so an exhibit of art inspired by nature from the Weatherspoon Art Museum’s permanent collection seemed like a suitable respite.

Besides, there weren’t a lot of new exhibits to choose from. Nature in All Its Glory, which inhabits two small galleries, is best experienced at a slow pace. Although most of the 27 contenders are contemporary, none are particularly political although some are quietly provocative. Rather than articulate any path-breaking ideas, the exhibit as a whole simply hearkens back to one of the oldest themes in art — the inspiration received from the grandeur of nature.

Human interventions, interruptions or observations naturally creep into most of the work in this exhibit.

At one end of the spectrum, the late Kimowan McLain’s “Cold Lake” projects an intimacy in its depiction of two men (the artist and his cousin) fishing in a lake that reverberates with autobiography and culture. The pastiche of digital photographs reconfigured through an epoxy of tape, rust, dye, tobacco meets the eye with a sepia tone that suggests 1970. The sky glows with shades of pink in the golden hour before dusk. The scene feels fleeting and precious.

A professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and member of the Cold Lake First Nations in Alberta, Canada, McLain died in 2011.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Ross Ice Shelf of Antarctica, as photographed by Stuart Klipper, is as distant from human culture as a place on earth can be. The ice shelf seems to come to a point at the center of the photograph. The sides of the shelf are roughly sheered but its top looks completely smooth and undifferentiated as its white mass recedes into a horizon that is nearly indistinguishable from the sky while the water below is dark and ominous. The scale of the ice shelf — 500 miles across and hundreds of feet thick — defies comprehension in the photo. Yet the viewer’s awareness of climate change implicitly raises the question of whether the integrity of the ice shelf is put at risk by human activity.

“Untitled (Brown Stamp Desert — Self Regenerating)” by Jonathan Herder straddles the line between human culture and pristine nature. The vastness of the American West landscape — an indeterminate patch of dusty plains or desert — is oddly emphasized by the virtue of being a sliver of brown color amidst a blanket of white space. Constructed through a collage of thousands of US postage stamps, the brown and tan landscape features two canoeists drifting towards a set of rapids cleverly fabricated through torn shreds of stamps. The caption aptly notes that the piece “suggests peril, pitting the canoeists against a vast, unbridled and indifferent space.”

Two chromogenic photographs by Uta Barth from her “Nowhere Near” series juxtapose utility poles with trees stripped of their leaves in winter, raising a question about which are beautiful and which are unsightly. Both photos are framed above the ground as if to throw off the viewer’s sense of normal context.

The setting for a composite photo of geese by Kiki Smith is similarly informed by human habitation — it’s a canal — but the focus of the playful piece is all on birds and fish.

Nature is ultimately what we choose to see. It’s hard to separate it from the ways that we engage with it.

The monthly gallery hop goes down in Winston-Salem and Greensboro on Friday. In Greensboro, the gallery hop coincides with the annual Festival of Lights, replete with a musical stroll along South Elm Street and community sing-along and tree lighting at Center City Park.

An exhibit of paintings by Brian Davis that were inspired by urban planner Andres Duany’s vision for High Point (see this week’s editorial on page TK) opens at DeBeen Espresso, located at the intersection of West Lexington Avenue and Westchester Drive, on Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m.

High Point University students documented the furniture industry through photography in Out of the Woodword, an exhibit on view at High Point Museum through Feb. 28.

WANNA go?

Nature in All Its Glory: Selections from the Collection is on display at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, located at the corner of Spring Garden and Tate streets in Greensboro, through March 9. A free public tour of the exhibit will be given on Dec. 10 from noon to 12:20 p.m. Call 336.334.5770 for more information.

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