Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 10.09.08

Don’t Touch That Son, That’s Art!
Nature! Explored! at state park installations
by Chuck Adams

A few months after the Great Coastal Gale of 2007 pummeled Oregon’s northern coast with 129 mph wind gusts, I spent an afternoon wandering through the damaged forests. The environmentalist in me was horrified by the vast tracts of woodland laid flat. However, the art critic in me was in awe. It easily compared to getting a crick in my neck at the Sistine Chapel or spotting Brunelleschi’s dome out of the corner of my eye in Florence. Only the artist wasn’t some Lothario born 500 years ago; it was a meteorological hiccup, a clearcut crafted by nature. 

Fung-US by Vicki Wilson
Invader by Brennan Conaway

It was also a prime example of “how nature and art are intertwined,” the stated aim of of the “Natural Cycles: A Celebration of Art in the Forest” art installation series, now in its fourth year nestled in the emerald oasis of the suburban Tryon Creek State Park just south of Portland. In the exhibit, visitors stroll the handicap-accessible .37 mile Trillium Trail and view temporary art installations commissioned by the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC). This year RACC selected Dexter artist (and LCC instructor) Lee Imonen, among four other sculpture artists from Oregon and Washington.

While the artists primarily created works that point out the artificiality of their presence in a “natural” environment (see Jen Pack’s Forevergreen Tuffet for a couple of doubletakes), the best pieces actually blend in quite well — almost too well — while the lesser pieces have good ideas but poor execution. 

Julie Lindell crafted a 15-foot wide ball of yarn from discarded objects (basketballs, traffic cones, yard debris, etc.) and penetrated it with two 20-foot steel “needles” in her Seattle studio and trucked the cumbersome work to the park. Her Nontrivial Pursuit tries to make us think of what can be made from these discarded objects, but its green metaphor gets lost in the shadow of its own grandiosity.

After marveling for a few moments at the playful but awkward fungi civilizations created by Portlander Vicki Lynn Wilson (Fung-US), I spent a few moments staring at some fallen trees, thinking they were also part of the exhibit. In this way the show gets people looking — actually looking. Yet it’s too bad that there are those, like the teenagers I saw visiting the exhibit on its opening weekend, who won’t look at the pieces without a digicam’s LCD screen in front of their faces. And sometimes plain old nature upstages the art, like the elaborate spiderwebs or the storybook mushrooms peeking out from a nook on a tree that stubbornly distracted from
Imonen’s showstopping Source Series.

“Hey, look at those mushrooms!” said a little boy, after a moment sniffing Imonen’s beautiful, aromatic cedar fence emerging from the raw stump it was made from. “Oh, that’s art, too,” the boy’s mom explained, “only natural.” But nature doesn’t stoke an idea or question our relationship to it; only humans do these things. What Imonen suggests with his wood crate, his stack of lumber and his cedar fence — each made from a salvaged or windfelled tree — is that we’ve lost touch with the conversion of our natural resources into human luxuries (to the point that we demand an end to logging but continue to use wood for our remodeled hardwood floors). The message is not lost in Imonen’s empty wood crate with the word “fragile” stenciled on it: In order to construct something new we must be willing to sacrifice something else. Our values determine what gets saved and what gets sacrificed.

Walking out of the park, I almost missed Brennan Conaway’s 15-foot tall Invader, constructed of English ivy and posed in full attack mode (but so well done it can be mistaken, as I did, for just another tree). Formally the piece is an almagam of Jeff Koons’ Puppy and Edvard Munch’s The Scream, with the non-native ivy personified as an alien invader. It’s a menacing take on what some would consider the “happy evil” of ivy growth. But the piece raises the question of what else might be considered “invasions” on the sanctity of the wild forest: paved paths, interpretive center/gift shop, parking lot, benches, an art exhibit. 

Overall these works are best seen in the outdoor context and can be easily visited on any excursion to Portland or beyond.  “Natural Cycles” continues through Sept. 2009. Visit for more information.