Lately, I keep stumbling across the Taschen book Cabinet of Natural Curiosities.
A huge and beautiful printing of 18th century illustrations by the Dutch pharmacist Albertus Seba, it recalls that art and science are intertwined, mutually demonstrate parallel concepts and are the linchpins of public imagination in a world hungry with curiosity. Two current Santa Fe exhibitions imply similar sentiments and demonstrate the artists’ capacities to observe the natural (and in these instances, the unnatural) world, and also the projection of the human psyche out into the world.
At Cruz Gallery, Nicola López presents Tangle, an intimate collection of framed works entangled within literal roadworks of printed mylar highway lanes, which span the walls from floor to ceiling and spread aggressively throughout the small gallery space.
López’ work is increasingly found in large-scale installations at museums (she currently is exhibiting as part of Phantom Sightings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), so to see it hung casually through the open door of a small space on Canyon Road is a rare delight.
It is also an opportunity to revel in the artist’s hand. López is a printmaker by trade, but an unconventional one. She creates enormous woodblock prints on mylar and then painstakingly cuts out forms and assembles the elements into installations that provoke her particular sense of a post-now, hyper-industrialized, construction-crazy world. López’ installations can be overwhelming with a kind of molecular, Ballardian intensity of imploding roads, satellite dishes, radio towers, plumbing and helicopters—which is precisely the power of the works, but the details should not be missed.
Last year, I wrote the following in regards to López:
“Nothing in her work becomes truly grotesque or overblown, instead the form and assembly retain an intelligence and scale that lure involvement. Even the use of overlapping strips of Mylar recalls anatomy diagrams from science textbooks and induces a familiar, biological sympathy between her constructions and the viewer’s body. Most important, upon closer inspection of the works, the artist’s hand grows ever more apparent. Having taken each viewer to the cusp of an anti-hubristic evolution that postulates an indifference to human experience, López reasserts the value of humanizing sensation through her own craft. Gouache, ink, oil stick and graphite emerge, shy but persistent, as evidence of passage, as sweetly ironic refinement. Ultimately, the pure human effort of creating and making prints, of dissecting and arranging the results and then hand-working each piece toward a sense of singular completion, serves as an effective visual and interpretive contrapuntal beat to the lurid and surprising ecology she has just proposed.”
In Tangle, this balance between the mechanized organism of human endeavor and the individual assertion of the artist’s hand is entirely distinct and it highlights the notion that López illustrates, out of scientific curiosity as much as artistic impulse, the cellular compositions of humanity’s accidental, industrial offspring. There is little judgment in her work, only the passionate documentation of someone with an eye on a startling new frontier.
Grant Hayunga, likewise, illustrates a notion of nature, which is rarely considered a being in its own sense. His series of paintings, Tree Skeletons, at Linda Durham Contemporary, presents dark, detailed silhouettes of trees in landscapes against surfaces that range from elegant to disastrous. In contrast to the diligent paintwork, gestural forms linger about the trees: Thick, lined, cartoony skulls hover in and around the branch work or float through the sky. It is as though each painting is a portal in which one sees not only the tree, but the tree’s animus or essence. The work fails to be burdensome or overly suggestive, as it could easily be.
Instead, like López, Hayunga offers little opinion or enforcement of how to view what he portrays, simply a method for viewing it.
Thus it becomes easy to envision the artist’s studio as a laboratory and Hayunga as a diligent documentarian in the vein of Seba. Rather than illustrating snakes and lizards that have arrived in specimen jars, Hayunga trains his strange, internal microscope on what is hidden from the eyes, but sensed by the soul. Whether what he captures is the energetic truth of otherworldly life that emanates from nature or simply an anthropomorphic projection of essence is unimportant. Hayunga succeeds because the paintings, ultimately, are egoless. As unlikely as this sounds to anyone who knows Hayunga (or knows that he fronts a band and pals around with celebrities), the energy that has gone into these paintings is absorbed in the portrayal—or again, the passionate documentation—of something that must be put down for the sake of human understanding as much as for the satisfaction of art.
Like the illustrations of Seba and his long-ago peers, the works of López and Hayunga obviously do succumb to personal indulgences and stylistic embellishments. But rather than reading them as the gimmickry of art that simply wants attention, they carry on the traditional—and cherished—burden of artists and scientists to make guesses at the gray areas and to hypothesize the far reaches of dark caverns.