Category Archives: Urban nature

Mark Malmberg – Hsiao Hua


Mark Malmberg, Hsiao Hua 2007. Carbon fiber reinforced bamboo, electronics with Bluetooth. On view at Blackfish Gallery until May 31, 2014

Mark Malmberg’s solar powered robotic mobile Hsiao Hua is a beguiling interweaving of the organic and the high tech. Solar panels, a computer, a motor, and a propeller are carefully lashed and epoxied to a bamboo frame, creating a beautiful creaturely sculpture. With sufficient light Hsiao Hua comes to life, emitting a series of chirps and whistles, wheeling and gliding. In the gallery this is surprising – a bit like walking into someone’s apartment only to be greeted by the squawks of a parrot. Hsiao Hua is an unusual and out of place life form and it makes me think about the relationships between animals and machines, nature and city, high tech and low. It’s also playful and clearly made with great craft and care.


Zhan Wang – Artificial Rock #10


Artificial Rock #10 (2001) Zhan Wang (Chinese, born 1962) Stainless steel On view in Ink Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 11, 2013–April 6, 2014)

Shiny and biomorphic, this contemporary scholar’s rock displayed in a Ming period room as part of the Metropolitan Museum’s Ink Art has an alien, otherworldly presence. In China, starting two thousand years ago, scholars would collect rocks to place in gardens or studies. Rocks that offered miniaturized representations of larger natural features are prized as are rocks that are thin, perforated, and wrinkled as these are evidence of powerful, slow-working natural forces. Artificial Rock #10 with its complicated, sloped surfaces look as if it had been sculpted by millennia of running water. But, in fact, sheets of stainless steel were hammered around a rock, then removed, welded together, and polished creating a hollow form – perhaps suggesting that the scholar’s rock itself has disappeared (at least its original referent). The shiny involuted surfaces are also intriguing; they make it hard to see your reflection and place yourself in this landscape.

Sasuri Sasaki Hemann – Tidepools



Sasuri Sasaki Hemann, Tidepools (2013)


Sasuri Sasaki Hemann, Tidepools (detail) (2013)

In 2012 I had the pleasure of stumbling upon Sasuri Sasaki Hemann’s Urban Aquarium at the Portland International Airport. The large wall display of meticulously crafted, floating jellyfish and other undersea creatures was a very welcome respite and I spent a lovely half hour looking and watching others look. Now the jellyfish are back in a permanent exhibit in the international terminal. Tidepools is smaller and installed in a rectangular glass case on the floor. Hemann’s artist’s statement explains that, “Urban Aquarium explores the concept of being ‘out of context’ and ‘displaced.’” For me it was also an occasion to think about a beautiful and vulnerable undersea world that is at once close and far away. I remember seeing a young boy gaze at the jellyfish and ask his mother, “Is it real?” I wanted to say, “Yes!” – jellyfish are real and so too is the ability of art to prod us to see and think differently.

Traer Scott – Moose


Traer Scott, Moose (2011) Ultrachrome print

Last time I wrote about the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), those amazing and immersive scenes that are also fascinating examples of installation art. Perhaps as interesting as what’s behind the glass is what happens in front of the glass, as visitors, young and old, look in, sometimes scarcely breaking stride. Traer Scott’s photo series, Natural History, taken at the AMNH in 2008, captures these two layers. In Moose the face of a girl and boy appear to float on the body of the moose. There’s a witty reversal as the humans look ghostly and furtive and the wild animals look solid and in sharp focus. Nature and culture might be separate layers, but they’re always intertwined. Scott’s photos, by showing the human spectators, remind us that whenever we look at or represent nature we change it or perhaps simply become part of the representation

Jaguar Diorama – American Museum of Natural History


When I was young I loved the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and I still do. Now, however, the dioramas strike me as fascinating examples of installation art and not simply meticulously recreated natural scenes. On a recent visit to the AMNH the dioramas looked as wonderful, transportive, and sad as ever. As a child I was aware of the death that created these and my son (age six) was too. To me they’re of great historical interest. I found myself imagining what they might have looked like to visitors in the early 20th century. (The Hall of North American Mammals opened in 1942 while the African Hall dates from much earlier in the 20th century.) But these dioramas also struck me as contemporary in their sensibility and their aesthetic, teetering between earnestness and irony.

Yang Yongliang – View of Tide

YangYongliang_View_of_tide_detail_1_courtesy18Gallery_Magda Danysz

Yang Yongliang, View of Tide (2008) Inkjet print On view in Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, Metropolitan Museum December 11, 2013–April 6, 2014

This week I’m in New York City, so a number of upcoming posts, including this one, will feature interesting things I saw there. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” is full of compelling works. One that I was particularly beguiled by was View of Tide by Yang Yongliang. This massive scroll (17 inches x 32 feet) at first glance looks like a relatively straightforward Chinese landscape. But as you get closer that familiar ground starts to shift right out from under you. It’s harder to see in this photograph, but the mountains are made of countless highrise buildings that have been copied and digitally manipulated. The trees are power line towers and construction cranes. Here, those ubiquitous markers of contemporary China – big buildings, rampant construction, and electricity – have become the landscape. It would be easy to view this as an entirely negative image and yet I don’t think it’s that simple. There is an undeniable beauty and energy to this work and while it’s a critique of the new, it’s also surely a critique of the old: landscape aesthetics are often idiosyncratic and always artificial.

Laura Ross-Paul – Upturn


Laura Ross-Paul , Upturn, 2013
Oil, watercolor, wax on Hulle paper on board
On view at Froelick Gallery, February 4 – March 15, 2014

Upturn is a portrait of what Laura Ross-Paul refers to as one of Portland’s  “deciduous citizens.” Certainly there is real personality and expression in this tree that looms up in the picture plane with upturned and twisting arm-like limbs. This isn’t some grand old giant in a pristine old growth forest. Rather it’s a younger and somewhat battered looking specimen, browned in places and surrounded by a collection of somewhat spindly looking trees in the background. Installed in the Froelick Gallery Ross-Paul’s show Urban Forest, offer a wall full of portraits of trees, humans, and statues that benefit from being hung together, in a grove or garden of sorts. To me it suggests that the urban forest is full of strange beauty, dramatic juxtapositions, and opportunities missed.

Laura Ross-Paul – Red Boot


Laura Ross-Paul , Red Boot, 2013
Oil, watercolor, wax on Hulle paper on board
On view at Froelick Gallery, February 4 – March 15, 2014

It’s a cliché that things look different at night, but one that is certainly at play in this painting. Laura Ross-Paul’s lovely Red Boot shows a woman at night sitting on a bench. She seems inwardly focused, intent only on her phone and its powers to transport and inform. Around the sitting woman is a beautiful urban nocturne. Night has made this city scene softer, more mysterious, and somehow more natural, but the woman seems not to notice. This painting is part of Urban Forest, Ross-Paul’s exhibit at Froelick Gallery. The proximity of natural beauty and our ability to overlook it is a recurring theme here. Even if some of the characters within Ross-Paul’s paintings are absorbed by their digital devices her work certainly pays careful attention to urban nature in all its strange beauty. (Up next will be a tree portrait from this same exhibit).

Benny Wizansky – Columbia Slough


Benny Wizansky, Columbia Slough (2013)
on view at the Newspace Center for Photography (Dec. 7 – Feb. 2)

The Columbia Slough in North Portland is one of those secret and mysterious urban waterways that is both so close and so far from everyday awareness. City dwellers are certainly rediscovering and revitalizing many long neglected waterways, notably the Los Angeles River and the Bronx River. But the Columbia Slough watershed, which consists of 6 lakes, 3 ponds, and 50 miles of waterways in industrial North Portland, has not yet become so beloved or accessible and, indeed, it may never. It’s a hard to love body of water –  slow moving, difficult to get to, and marked by industry. Benny Wizansky’s photo series Columbia Slough, collected in a book of the same title, is a quiet yet moving study of the Slough. Photos like the one above capture those odd moments when pavement meets nature. Wizansky notes that “Today, the Slough is contrast defined – a forced meeting of airplane exhaust and misty fog, of eagle calls and lunch break whistles, and of spring raindrops and oil slicks.” This and other images in this series strike me subtle promptings, urging us not to do anything bigger than to look a bit more closely and perhaps care about what we see. But in the end those would be big steps.

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