Several exhibitions present art in natural settings this month. Several more present images of nature in a gallery, so the time is ripe for another go-round with my favorite disputatious duo — nature and culture.
Blue Heron Nature Preserve near Nancy Creek makes us think about how anything dropped into it travels southward and into the oyster beds of Apalachicola. The art in Listening to the Waters (through June 6) does two things: It illustrates the challenge of making art that responds to the large-scale issues of a natural setting, and it demonstrates the difficulty of doing aesthetically pleasing work while raising awareness.
More or less illustrative works by Roxane Hollosi and Rebecca Tabor convey a poetic sense of how things can connect. In Kyoung Chun’s blue entry arch begins the series of artwork along the nature trail with a sense of drama, but Hellenne Vermillion’s giant ceramic raindrops, Julie Henry’s carved scrap leather attached to tree bark and the poem-containing blue bottles that form an image of cascading water (a collaboration by Sylvia Cross, Flora Rosefsky and Randy Taylor) struggle in different ways and show how tough it is for art to maintain its own presence when it’s competing with woodlands. Fortunately, explanatory signage redirects our attention back to the artwork.
In Big Bugs, at Fernbank Museum of Natural History (through July 21), you’ll see David Rogers’ gigantic sculptures of insects. They’re made of recycled wood and are objects of entertainment and education as well as outdoor artwork in the WildWoods pathways behind the museum.
The large figures and J.D. Koth’s interwoven-branch arches and brush arbors in the adjacent Nature Gallery forest path may well be some children’s first exposure to public art. The sculptures are supplemented by large-scale signage that offers lessons about the nature of nature, so my encounter made me wonder: How many parks or nature preserves elsewhere in metro Atlanta are making similar use of art to teach visitors about the world around them?
Fallen Fruit, at Jackson Fine Art through June 29, takes a different approach to teaching urban dwellers about the natural world. It comes from a collaboration between Los Angeles-based artists David Burns and Austin Young.
In the past, the project has produced maps of fruit trees on public property or overhanging public streets to encourage people to understand the harvest that goes to waste every season as fruit drops and rots in public spaces. Burns and Young’s formal artwork transforms a gallery or other public space into a digitally produced paradise garden featuring wallpaper patterns of flowers and fruit gathered near the exhibition location.
The Jackson Fine Art installation is based on material produced for Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel. The wallpaper comes from digital collages of locally photographed flowers; the hauntingly romantic portrait photographs feature digitally added flora. The portraits here pay homage to Tallulah Bankhead and other icons of LGBTQIA culture. The effect is lush and overwhelming, despite the potentially de-romanticizing row of cabinets that cover the lower half of the main wall.
Carolyn Carr’s front-and-middle-gallery Out of the Studio (also through June 29 at Jackson Fine Art) features fallen flowers. The large-scale Ground Flowers (2018) offers close-ups of random arrays of the white blossoms of Japanese stewartia white blossoms.
Arrangements, the main body of work, features formal still lifes of flowers, insects and minerals photographed outdoors on a box easel on the grounds of the house where the native and non-native cultivated flowers were gathered. Other objects in the compositions form a carefully selected representation of the flora, insects and minerals found in the surrounding North Carolina rain forest.
This marriage of science and deliberately subverted art traditions contains nuance upon nuance: The subtle changes in natural light, to cite one example, reveal the outdoor location of what appear to be studio compositions. This becomes apparent only when viewers compare a succession of images.
Leisa Rich’s Aftermath: In the Pink, at Thomas Deans Fine Art through May 29, is an immersive installation so thematically interwoven that it someday will invite the attention of a determined art historian. Right now, those who are curious about the relationship between these masses of fabric flowers and hanging gardens and the aftermath of Rich’s extended battle with skin cancer can attend her artist talk at 11:30 a.m. May 17.
If you can’t make the weekday-morning time frame, there are sufficient clues on-site, including wall texts that let viewers guess at symbolic meanings. Rich offers useful context in her Q&A with ARTS ATL here.
In any case, t he overall sensory impact of the textured 3-D-printed or embroidered objects hanging from the ceiling or arranged in patterns on the walls takes priority over deeper meanings until you’ve had time to shift from amazed contemplation to reflective analysis. When Rich calls this show “immersive,” she means it.
The metaphoric uses of nature in these exhibitions, addressing topics that range from ecology and gender politics to photographic traditions and medical crises, make me particularly sensitive to the symbolic conversations between nature and culture in the photography of Clarence John Laughlin (1905–85).
Strange Light: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin opened at the High Museum of Art on May 11 and runs through November 10. His Elegy for Moss Land summarizes the symbolic dialogue between Southern nature and the culture it elicited and perhaps still elicits. That photograph’s collage of tree, mysterious human figure and ghostly architecture demonstrates why Laughlin is called the Father of American Surrealism.
There’s another American surrealist of sorts in the Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads show, which is in its final week at the High Museum. Ralph Eugene Meatyard presided over the Lexington Camera Club, which was more concerned with poetic glimpses of landscape. His strange images of masked figures are remarkable parallels to Laughlin’s less nervously ambiguous masked protagonists, who are more like what Laughlin described as mythic “personifications of our fears and frustrations, our desires and dilemmas.” (Read our Way Out There review here.)