Trees call to mind big leafy structures over our heads, like the Oak trees that surround the Montebello Design Centre, where the exhibition is held. Yet inside the gallery, a miniature world of these majestic forms is offered to us. The representations and imaginings of the trees are on a small scale. The sculptures are little floating worlds encompassing the notion of tree-ness, showing how a space, a landscape can be rendered so tangible by the presence of a tree. Through its presence it is suggested that the polystyrene or metal grid forms the suggestion of land. The tree denotes the landscape by its inclusion.
These evocations of space slide from the Victorian preserved landscape of Stuart Cairns, where a figure moves through dirty polystyrene snow punctuated by a dead sprig of tree, evoking both preservation and discarding, to Beth Armstrong’s metal trees rooted in the strong metal grids of their environments, which recall a modern urban planet. Vanessa Cowling’s ephemeral photographs epitomize for me the pervading articulation of trees in this show: the artists seem on the whole to focus on rendering the delicate structure of the tree. As opposed to depicting massive forms the artists have chosen to render trees in a small intimate way.
Throughout the show there is a proliferation of what I’d like to call clothed and unclothed trees. Trees stripped down to structure: root and branch; trees festooned with leaves; and a Pierneef tree in between in its underwear, so to speak, half clothed, half naked. For me, the question raised by these various states of undress is, does the tree’s nudity or its attire encourage thoughts of a shroud? There is a tension in the tree of life being dead, that death is simply one of its states and that life is fragile and uncertain. In Lyn Smuts’ and Beth Armstrong’s work, roots and branches intertwine and confuse what is up and what is down, what is stripped down and what is simply the structure.
Mischa Fritsch’s Tree of Life is the most overt slippage between life and death and the instability between the two. Starkly bared branches end in grinning skulls perched on a Perspex column, encased by a Perspex column: a small, contained, delicate structural depiction. Behind it hang reworked photographs of a dead tree. The sculpture is contained, protected, isolated and almost sterilized.
Going outside, I wished I was a small child so that Fritsch’s large sculpture To err is human loomed overhead. A tree constructed out of oxygen tanks, it playfully focuses our attention on one of our relationships with trees as providers of oxygen. There is something spirited and life-affirming about this sculpture, yet the battered look of the tanks, their erosion and corrosion, speaks of underlying fragility.
This collection of trees provides a depiction of these organisms as fragile and delicate. Instead of their immense size we see a finer imagining.
– Alice Gauntlett