Art review: the natural and human worlds collide in ‘Witchgrass’


Any farmer or gardener will tell you, witch weed is the most pernicious of weeds. Each season, its panicle unfolds and drops seeds in the wind which spreads far away. It is resistant to many common herbicides and impossible to control in open crop fields.

Louise Gluck’s poem, “Witchgrass”, which gives its name to the current Speedwell Projects exhibition, speaks of the voice of the plant:

I don’t need your praise
To survive. I was here first,
Before you’re here, before
You have already planted a garden.
And I’ll be there when only the sun and the moon
Are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will be the ground.

The show (until October 30) features multimedia works by four women – Josephine Chase, Karen Gelardi, Hilary Irons and Juliet Karelsen – and looks at the resilience of nature (hence the grass metaphor of witch) but also in her fragile struggle to survive human intrusion. on the natural world.

Chase’s work, hung from the street windows and best seen from outside the gallery, has an elegiac quality. Her statement informs us that she was “motivated by the impact that artefacts of migration and relocation have on our landscapes”. The works reuse parts of an abandoned family car, which, as material objects, represent something left behind as family members move on to a new life.

Josphine Chase, “Passenger I”, Acrylic on metal, 4 ‘x 4’, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist

Their abandoned presence contributes to a certain melancholy that permeates the works. These objects are forgotten, helpless, devoid of any relevant function or meaning in the world. Chase reinforces their sense of impermanence by painting layer after layer of designs inspired by household floral fabrics and wallpapers on car doors. The houses in which these fabrics and wallpapers reside, of course, are symbols of settlement and rest, of futile human attempts at stability and permanence.

The unstoppable growth, along with Chase’s photographs of painted car parts abandoned in the fields, suggest something much bigger: the temporality of all human endeavor in the face of nature, which over time pushes on these doors, rendering them finally invisible under blankets. weeds and brush. As the poem predicts, the plants now “constitute the field”, hiding the traces of human life.

Karen Gelardi, “Components, In the Outside, and“ Ground Control With Components ”, ink, fabric, thread, reflective piping and transfers, 2019 (with parts from 2007). Photo courtesy of the gallery

This sort of stubborn plant life and persistent growth is also expressed in Karen Gelardi’s plays. In her statement, the artist states that “modular units, reproduction, variety and mutation are essential elements of a resilient system. This is because plants are based on cellular structures that mutate and adapt in response to environmental conditions, care or neglect, insects or disease, chemical applications, and more.

Many of his fiber sculptures reproduce patterns formed using repetitions of modular components on upholstered fabrics and sewn into soft sculptures. The shapes of these sculptures are often cylindrical, sometimes with a protruding end of ramate, and may resemble parts of branches, fibers, stamens, plant cells or other parts of plants. Others, like a length of colorful rope hanging from a hook, may suggest root systems.

Yet there is also fragility and endangerment to consider, and these stand out strongly in Karelsen’s colorful flowers made of yarn and felt.

They were originally created in response to the pandemic, a way to escape disease and death in a world of beauty and fantasy. But by presenting them under bells, they leave a darker impression of rare, probably extinct species of flora, preserved from the corrosive effects of a ruined environment. They point out, his statement indicates “the fact that an endless supply of our forests, flowers, plants, trees, bees, glaciers, animals, birds, seas and air is not a reality. It is indeed a fantasy.

Some of these flowers could also be weird hybrids, the result of capricious human intervention. “Plaid Lotus” and “Public Domain Polka Dot” appear to be exotic flowers from a surreal dream. They are not natural. Rather, they are out of sync with the natural world, bizarre experiences meant to appease people’s fantasies.

Juliet Karelsen, “Bee Flower Quilt”, 2021

Another group of works by Karelsen is called the Flowers Bees Love series. For each, she reproduced the favorite flowers that attracted bees – borage, lilac, rugosa roses, Joe Pye grass – in cyanotyped images developed on fabric. Then she used them to create quilt drapes, chair upholstery, and wallpaper.

The work is intended to comment on the colony collapse disorder that killed bee populations. Initially attributed to pesticides, scientists pointed to many other factors, including invasive mites, parasites, new diseases and viruses, and habitat loss. But some of the cyanotypes also give the flowers a ghostly appearance that makes them feel like they’re gone. These are contrasted with flowers rendered more vividly in vivid colors with embroidered details. The result is an interesting tension between what’s here and what’s gone, what survives and what doesn’t.

Finally, Hilary Irons paints flora and fauna in which plants form dense networks and systems that seem to communicate with each other in a secret language. His paintings are interested in deciphering the messages they send.

“What is the message of a certain outline, or an edge, or a hanging fringe or a transparent bubble?” She wrote in an email. “The unimaginable nature of natural forms, especially plant forms, is the best kind of fuel for my imagination because there is no way I can concoct it on my own. We are invited to ask ourselves what truths plants can communicate to us.

Plants also represent larger universal phenomena. In “The Motherwort Boundary”, for example, the plants appear to form a sort of Milky Way-like cosmic constellation stretching across the canvas. “Home is the Hunter” shows a donkey standing on the ground, unaware that under its hooves hides a whole universe of life which includes plants, animals and stars.

The title is taken from an epitaph on a tombstone in Cynthia Voigt’s children’s novel “Homecoming”, but its origin is the poem “Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson, which speaks of death as our deepest desire. :

This is the verse that you engrave for me:
Here he is where he aspired to be;
The house is the sailor, the house of the sea,
And the hunter was coming back from the hill.

For Irons, death is a deliverance in a world more luxuriant and alive than that of the living.

Hilary Irons, “Watching Out”, oil, acrylic and marble dust on panel, 16 “x 16”, 2021. Photo courtesy of the gallery

In other paintings, such as “Teasel Lantern” and “Watching Out”, the architecture derived from the places where she painted the work – windows, arched doors – resemble portals to other dimensions of existence. Several paintings also feature a candle and a flame, perhaps suggesting nature’s eternal perseverance through time. The plant world for Irons becomes a kind of state of transition between our constructed reality and the deeper truths of the universe.

One work, “Depth Charges”, stands out from the rest. It consists of cutout paper seaweed shapes floating above designs of actual depth charges. It may seem unrelated in its uniqueness. But, in fact, it conveys the same message of the persistence of nature on human existence.

The first is, of course, a plant form, the second artificial. In front of them, we feel the weight of these metal cans, which seem to pull us down as the algae floats freely on the surface. Depth grenades are destructive objects that drown us, while algae live unhindered, feeding on salt water.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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