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by James Croak
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The Druids, a class of priests who lived in the Iron Age, communicated via an alphabet that consisted entirely of drawings of tree branches, with each letter or sound accorded an arboreal species and drawn to graphically resemble it. For instance, the “B” sound was “beith,” which means “birch tree” in modern English, and the letter comprised a drawing of a birch branch, while “ea” was an aspen tree, and the letter was a representation of aspen. The Druids also marked time by trees, naming each calendar month of the 13-month lunar cycle after a common tree like Birch, Rowan, Ash or Willow.

These days, when the urban phantasmagoria of Andy Warhol accounts for one-sixth of global art-auction trade and Pop Art in general is the primetime program, it’s curious to note the steadily increasing number of artists now finding their balm in organic, non-urban imagery. Landscape painting or sculpture, frequently based upon tree imagery, is certainly not a new phenomenon, but in recent years it has been popping up all over the global art scene.

Ana Mendieta (1948-85), the now-celebrated sculptor whose career was cut too short by her tragic and scandalous death, camouflaged herself as a tree in a 1976 performance titled Arbol de la Vida. Mendieta apparently sought to merge with trees and the ground, and thereby to discover inner peace, a goal that stands in sharp contrast to other Body Art of the period, which tended to be urban, violent and noisy.

For his 1969 Upside Down Tree, the Earthworks pioneer Robert Smithson (1938-73) uprooted trees, inverted them, and then rammed them back into the earth, exposing their gnarly plumbing system. Smithson’s threatening image subverts the innocuous perception of a tree as a simple plant offering some pleasant shade, and was frequently referenced by the generation that followed him. That same year, he exhibited Dead Tree, a large timber with its roots exposed, which he exhibited on its side in a Dusseldorf show.

The Italian Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947) systematically removes the outer rings of trees or wooden beams and exposes the original sapling underneath, pioneering a subtractive method rather than additive one and standing out among tree-involved sculptors. He chisels into the tree the same way generations of Italians before him, most notoriously Michelangelo, delved into a block of marble, seeking the “figure inside." It’s a form of sculptural psychoanalysis, stripping away the adult defenses to expose the willowy child at the core. It is marvelous and captivating work, and since discovering Penone’s work, I have never been able to behold a wooden beam again without wondering about the newborn hidden beneath its surface.

Roxy Paine (b. 1966) welds stainless steel trees in the hollow-volume tradition of David Smith. Recently, Paine moved from machine-made, lumpy abstractions of great color but vague meaning, to highly developed, stainless-steel trees -- in which metaphors abound -- with little in the way of transition work in between. His chef d’oeuvre is perhaps Conjoined, a pair of massive wind-swept trees that were installed in New York’s Madison Square Park in 2007. The two trees bend and reach toward each other, as if distorted by strong wind into an arbor that shelters the exact place where West meets East, a howling storm of lighting and conflict.

As did Mendieta, many modern sculptors have desired to become a tree, as in Head in Tree by Rona Pondick (b. 1952). She modified the form of a tree by adding umbilical cord-like roots, a witty addition, which I watched being built in a foundry upstate.  The work is Christmas-tree sized, to which an unfortunate life cast ornament of a head was added, unfortunate not only for the kind of gruesomeness as provoked by Goya's Grande hazaña. As figurative skills have been devalued and not taught, as the art scene has evolved from modernist to post-conceptual, figuration has been produced by strategies ranging from mannequins and taxidermy to appropriation and, the least desirable, life casting. Life casting is the karaoke of sculpture, pretend culture, and should be used for mock-up, not the final product.

British sculptor Philippa Lawrence uses trees in her work -- without felling them. She locates an ancient tree in each of the 12 counties of Wales and wraps it with bright felt, similar to the way that Christo surrounded Biscayne Bay islands with pink fabric. Lawrence sees this as her transition from a self-described city girl to a rural girl, whose identity is “woven” into the countryside. In another non-destructive piece born out of her reverence to the countryside, she has wrapped trees with barcodes for her Barcode: FB184, a novel but puzzling work.

Smithson’s Gorgon’s Head of tree roots is referenced routinely in contemporary sculpture, and Steve Tobin (b. 1957) uses roots as a figurative extension of the large-scale, steel formalist sculptural tradition. Although he has mastered that craft, he takes it further by combining a mix of actual tree roots abstracted elements, creating assemblages that are both cast directly from life and fabricated from his imagination. Tobin’s Trinity Root, installed at the Trinity Church near Wall Street, is an enduring tourist attraction.

Sam Durant (b. 1961) has reconstituted Smithson’s Upside-Down Tree with his compelling Upside Down: Pastoral Scene, in which he places tree stumps on mirrors, a favorite Smithson technique.

Australian artist John Dahlsen, who markets himself as an “environmental artist,” upended a grown Laurel tree, pronounced it a “pest,” and displayed its massive root structure as an objet d’art. An early photo of its dirt-clotted architecture is an engaging earthwork, but Dahlsen then trashed it by applying some cheesy IKEA driftwood finish and giving it the kitschy title, Monumental Environmental Artwork. Although initially comic, Dahlsen's work is not meant to be ironic. Killing a tree for a sculpture is “environmental” in the same way taxidermy is done in the name of animal rights -- and if you need to tell the audience what a work is, then it simply isn’t.

Quite a few artists are dragging trees into galleries these days, as did Earthwork artists at the end of the 1960s. The gigantic one art (2006) tree installation at the Sculpture Center in Long Island City by Scottish artist Anya Gallaccio (b. 1963) is a powerful memory. It functioned as a classic readymade: something that seems to be in the wrong place but elucidates the aura of things in the right place, filling all 50 feet of the grand gallery’s ceiling.

The Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira (b. 1973) uses trees of his own fabrication to explode the gallery walls and floors in an effervescent effusion of youthful vibrancy, a gesture that is a bit hyperdramatic, but nevertheless exciting to observe. As for Sanford Biggers (b. 1970), his evocative tree installation Blossom, currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum, merges various themes -- improbably involving Zen Buddhism and black history with “[tree] references ranging from lynchings to Buddha’s enlightenment.”

Mel Chin (b. 1951) made the 60-foot-tall behemoth that is Manila Palm: An Oasis Secret from manmade materials and installed it on the grounds of the Houston Contemporary Art Museum in 1978, and it is a much beloved local fixture. Although Chin does not seem to feel very strongly about it anymore, I came upon it in an unexpected way: the work is included in collections of photos of cell phone towers disguised as trees. This unlikely membership is one that Chin most likely could not have imagined 34 years ago­, and it made me wonder if this was its ultimate influence. I would be remiss not giving a hat-tip to these hundreds of artisans who are disguising this communication blight as trees, increasingly convincing ones, an interesting sculpture subculture to follow.

I stopped counting when I reached about 200 contemporary artists working with trees, both fabricated and found. As with the Druids, the tree has become a seminal emotional experience and the mainstay of many artists' communication with their audience. Sometimes the tree has a simple formalism, but more often than not it is a displacement of the urban by the rural, no doubt driven by new forms of communication that allow artists to live in the country instead of clustering in the city.  

JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor.