Xerxes, the King of Persia, was so besotted with a Plane tree that he dressed it up in fancy jewels. Here in Los Angeles, we know how he feels. Swamped with automobiles, surrounded by dying palms (the city now plants hardier sycamores), Angelenos have gone green in a big way. They make art about trees.
Charles Ray got in on the act early with his much-talked-about Hinoki, a life-sized fallen tree carved out of Japanese cypress and exhibited at Regen Projects this past June. Even earlier in the tree-hugging sweepstakes was Joel Tauber’s "Sick-Amour" at Vielmetter Projects, a show devoted to a sickly sapling sprouting from the Rose Bowl parking lot.
Now, with the advent of the fall season, five of the better shows in town all happen to use trees as their central object of desire.
The Santa Monica Museum of Art is all about tree-love this fall. In a project-room show titled "The Wood," the Los Angeles artist Sharon Levy offers an exhibition featuring several stands of barren trees -- all cut with a jigsaw from sheets of plywood, painted brown and installed in the space like so many naturalistic hat racks. In the center of the space is Cookie, a nine-foot-tall sculpture resembling a saw-milled slice from the trunk of a huge tree (like a cookie), that is in fact made of stretched and painted canvas with carved and painted foam rubber serving as the tree bark.
Though Levy’s trees have a certain amusing formalism -- the shape of the sculptures is arguably defined by the origin of the material used to make them -- they have allegorical resonance as well. "The Wood" casts "nature" as a theatrical prop at the same time it inventories its sublime effects, via the dark and folklorish thickets of trees and the awesomely ancient giant oak.
Also at the Santa Monica Museum is the first West Coast museum exhibition by William Pope.L, the New York-born, Maine-based artist who also operates under the moniker of "the friendliest black artist in America." The installation here, titled "Art after White People: Time, Trees & Celluloid," features a grove of more than a dozen palm trees, spray-painted white, in a darkened room. Limp and drooping, sealed from light and air by their toxic coats, the trees are dying. It’s a particularly pointed image of global disaster and human vandalism.
According to the accompanying catalogue, Pope.L had wanted to tar the trees black in a room filled with light, which would have added another layer to the allegory. At any rate, the title of his piece, The Grove, also happens to be the name of a hideous shopping mall near the Farmers Market, within stone’s throw of the celebrated 90210 zip code.
After all this darkness, it is nice to come into the light at the Karyn Lovegrove Gallery on Wilshire Boulevard, where visitors can delight in trees simply for their welcoming shade in the late summer sun. "New Trees," a show of oil paintings by the Brooklyn-based artist Benjamin Butler, features full-frontal views of individual trees done in sweeping brush and reverberating colors. Unabashed in their admiration for their subject, Butler’s stylized and decorative calligraphic images cite a range of art forms, from Minimalism to Islamic art. Especially good is a willow sapling weeping against a pink and turquoise landscape, a nod to Pop art and a pleasure of paint, color and form to enjoy.
The L.A. artist Ruben Ochoa, an MFA grad of U. Cal Irvine in 2003, presents his first solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Dubbed "A Recurring Amalgamation," it’s an impressive showing, featuring a sprawling array of sculptures of half-finished tree trunks, made of concrete and rebar and resting on concrete-coated wood pallets. On the walls are large color photographs of Ficus trees planted on L.A. Streets. Not native to the city, these foraging Ficuses send out mighty roots in a serious hunt for water and space, and their bulbous tubers bulge over curbs and erupting through sidewalk slabs. The images become oozing and sexual, even, a whole other take on Madame Nature in the urban jungle.
If that’s not enough arbor love for you, or enough for a single sitting, anyway, then there’s one more tree-type substance to slip into your pipe and smoke at Sisterla gallery. There, Matthew Spiegelman displays his exhibition "Officione," a room full of large C-prints that all pertain to marijuana and the joys of getting high -- a beautifully healthy marijuana plant, a girl in a wild tie-dye t-shirt, an awesome cloud of white smoke.
As the artist explains, when he was a kid, his mother and her brother coined the word "officione" as a kind of shorthand for "come into my office," which itself was code for "let’s step out onto the deck and smoke some pot." The term later expanded its meaning to signify any moment of hedonistic freedom. Spiegelman’s photos, then, are a reminder of a happy place. If you have any questions, you can find me in my officione.
EMMA GRAY writes on art from L.A.