Gardens bring the bewildering abundance of the natural world into the balance and containment of the domestic sphere. In doing so, they straddle the nature/culture division that has operated in Western thought since Aristotle. “Thickening the Plot” — an exhibition ostensibly about gardens — allows diverse artists to investigate how nature and culture are perceived, whether it be as opposing forces, as separate realms, or as ideological constructs to be radically reconfigured in our postmodern, post-oil spill world.
As with every group show this writer has ever seen or curated, some artists engage the exhibition theme more successfully than others. There are several earthworks and they range from the sublime to the, well, ridiculously cool. The sublime is presented in the labyrinth constructed on a large plot of land just outside the gallery. Designed and built by Ruth Ann Anderson and Jill D’Agnenica, the labyrinth is based on an ancient pagan model. Participants are invited to carry a small dark stone, limned with a meditative thought, through their circuit of the labyrinth and place it in the shallow pool of water at its center. The interlocking rings of the maze-like configuration are framed by plants alternating with seed-covered bread. Children race over the concentric rings, adults walk slowly, quietly, usually with their heads lowered in what may be for some an unconscious reverence.
The ridiculously cool is seen in two places. Outside, Sharon Suhovy has erected “14 Wildflowers,” their stems made of twisted and rusted rebar, their blossoms of multiple water pistols. Composed of petroleum-based plastic and brilliantly colored with synthetic dyes, the toy guns remind us that Angel’s Gate is located on what was once a military base. Today, of course, our most threatening enemy is not another nation, but our own lust for petroleum as fuel and as raw material for manufacturing products like these toxic toys.
Also ridiculously cool are Jessica Newman-Skerentny’s “Hybrids.” A series of potted plant forms that refer rather loosely to actual species, these Styrofoam and rubber concatenations are nightmarish yet seductive — mutant reminders of how today’s plants may evolve if we continue to pollute the water and soil in which they grow.
Like Newman-Skerentny’s sculptures, many of the paintings in the show are simultaneously attractive and troubling. Lisa Adam’s new series of plants and birds is superlative. Her “Specimen for the Uninitiated” at first appears to be a five-petaled flower. But closer examination reveals that the petals are pulled outward by taut strings. Is this botanical torture?
Then there are Holly Boruck’s resin clay forms that both beguile and repel. Is that large white plant form giving birth to that smaller wormlike creature? No matter how elegant the shapes Boruck crafts, no matter how sophisticated and poetic the graphite drawings on their surfaces, well, there is something truly creepy transpiring here. Is this what happens when you transgress the animal/plant divide?
Noel Korten seems to be rehearsing the same transgression. His delicate, restrained watercolors draw viewers in, as do the peepholes he has carved into a log-based sculpture nearby. But after a bit of looking, what seems ethereal transmutes into the adamantly sexual, as if the painter were ravishing the rocks and crevices of the landscape … or perhaps it is the viewer who is tempted to do so.
This short review simply can’t do justice to all of richly rewarding art in “Thickening the Plot.” I didn’t expound on the gorgeous paintings by Erika Lizee, Jim Morphesis, Marina Moevs, or Cielo Pessione’s whimsical “Straw Flower” assemblage. Or the adjacent exhibition of curator John O’Brien’s work based on the letters to his future wife, scrolled over time-lapse images of the garden he cultivated in her absence. You’ll just have to make it down to San Pedro to see all of this — and more — in person.