One issue that weighs on my psyche as an artist working in the realm of realism is that of understanding the attraction to and value of created nature in art. In my own work, I create and preserve moments from nature as a statement on the transience of life. But, during my wanderings through picturesque parks and other abundantly verdant spaces in Seattle, my current city of residence, I began to question why we seek to recreate imagery from the organic world when it already appears perfectly in nature itself.
Alex Anderson, Winter Branch
Yes, this imagery has, throughout history and art history, a symbolic importance in specific artists’ lives and practices that may resonate with the experience of the viewer. But why does that image rendered in clay, glass, or even gold hold value from the viewer’s perspective when they could easily access and enjoy the “real” thing? Even Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds, which holds conceptual significance as an image referencing Chairman Mao’s regime in China is largely valued for the fact that each seed was made by hand, yet appears to be a real sunflower seed. One might ask why this human, handmade connection matters—and the answer lies in the fact that it is not about replication, but more about a certain engagement with nature.
“It has a lot to do with connecting to your own source because as human beings, our form originates and exists as a natural form itself. And so, there’s always that impulse to recreate,” suggests Syd Carpenter, professor of studio art at Swarthmore College. Her own work draws from the organic world in abstract to create powerful sculptures with an animate—and sometimes animalistic—quality that tells stories of humanity and organicity. Perhaps then, our attraction to the images of nature sources from a connective response to our origin as human animals and a certain revelry in the beauty of our world that we have the privilege of experiencing by being alive. Carpenter elucidates further:
You’re not just replicating, it’s about interpreting, it’s about announcing what you noticed. It’s about talking about for you as a creative person, as a viewing person, what about this is wondrous… To isolate something and try to understand it through making. It is that issue of trying to understand, describe, convey, and communicate your own wonder about your surroundings.
Perhaps an extension of this perspective is that art about nature is a channel for the transcendence of a modern society that continues to remove us from the nature that initially produced us. Nature is everywhere, but the way we access it and the way we are allowed to engage our humanity is eternally limited by rules and controls.
Syd Carpenter, Mind of Its Own
In my search for an answer to this question, I also wondered if art about nature is, in fact, an attempt to control the organic: to use it or preserve it. Perhaps it is an endeavor to recreate it in the way that we would prefer to see it, as flowers, leaves, animals (and people) do not naturally appear in porcelain, marble, or bronze. As such, they are inherently subject to the process of decay that only allows us to behold their moments of perfection for an instant. In my conversation with Professor Carpenter, I found an alternative perspective on this line of thinking.
…there’s always been this impulse to try to improve on nature. And at that point you could say that it’s about control, but I think that humans have come to the conclusion that you can’t control nature...there are artists who are able to make things that are so realistic that your first impulse would be to say, "they have controlled it," they know how to create nature. But, if nature is constantly evolving, we are only following.
In the 2001 documentary, Rivers and Tides, Scotland-based artist and master manipulator of nature, Andy Goldsworthy, explains his converse approach of using nature to create art rather than creating art that references nature:
Art for me is a form of nourishment. I need the land. I want to understand that state and that energy in me that I also feel in the plants and in the land. The energy in life that is flowing through the landscape. That intangible thing that is here and then gone. Growth. Time. Change. And the idea of flow in nature.
Syd Carpenter, Bovine
If people create art and nature creates people, does that mean art follows nature? I believe art that engages nature, symbolism aside, and in essence is about connection and wonder. It is about reflecting and honoring the elements of the world that are an inherent piece of our human identity, our form, and our lives as a destined connection to one of the few things that will always be larger and more powerful than us and an inextricable part of who we are.
(Image at the top: Alex Anderson, Detail of The Seed)
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