Nature is a common subject of art. It is romanticized, rationalized, and splattered into impressionistic dots. Although there are a variety of ways to artistically interpret natural beauty, few ways are as inventive as the approach taken by Markus Baenziger in his new exhibit, “Wayside.”
Baenziger, Swiss-born and Brooklyn-based, is on staff at Haverford College and shows his work at the Edward Thorp Gallery in Brooklyn. His exhibit, currently on display in the List Gallery, was a long time coming.
“We have been discussing his work and planning for this show in various ways for over three years,” said exhibit curator Andrea Packard.
Using industrial materials to create structures that mimic nature (some more ambiguously than others), Baenziger gets his audience to see in an exhibit what they ignore in their surroundings.
“[The exhibit] inspires us to see what is in the margins of our attention,” said Packard.
Take for example the piece “Dandelion,” an aptly-titled mixed-media sculpture of three dandelions growing out of a barren chunk of rock. The color of the “flowers” makes the display seem familiar, since we’ve probably seen it two or three times on the way to the gallery. Yet as the viewer approaches the exhibit, it becomes apparent that it isn’t really natural. The “flowers” preserve the form of the natural, whilst missing the realistic details: it’s as if the artist had never seen one in the flesh.
A memory might perhaps be the most fitting description. The lighting and placement of the sculptures is extremely deliberate, and the unchanging shadows that form around the works as a result of careful illumination give them the quality of snapshots that manage to exist indefinitely.
Packard worked with the artist on the lighting after the sculptures had been installed in the gallery. They spent time orienting and arraying bulbs in a way that would allow the form of the sculptures to assume specific gestures.
However, the use of the space of the gallery extends beyond lighting choices.
“We spent a long time together in the gallery planning the way his works in progress could best be arranged in our space. Arranging a body of work in the gallery is very much like composing a painting — artists and curators consider the dramatic or poetic impact of color, shape, light and intervals of rest,” said Packard.
Indeed, the position of the work in the room itself is striking. Two pieces in particular, “Turn Around” and “Step by Step,” make especially impressive use of the zones in which they exist. In “Turn Around,” stones and bits of fencing hang on the wall and support a drooping synthetic vine. It is almost imposing, taking advantage of its dimensions both upward and outward to communicate feelings of disturbed serenity.
“Step by Step” takes advantage of the gallery with a different strategy. A cracked slab of rock lies in front of a wall dotted with fake yellow flowers, flowers that are also found growing out of the rock itself. Viewers follow the exhibit diagonally as the flowers appear in bunches of varying size on the wall, until the sculpture finally fades out in the corner of the wall. It is a trick of art that helps the works within the exhibit move into one another as viewers walk through the gallery.
“‘Step by Step’ does a wonderful job of using the gallery as canvas,” said Packard. “The artwork bridges the floor and two walls in a way that animates the gallery’s architecture, calling attention to both the resilience of nature and the ephemerality of all built structures.”
Some pieces make a particularly conscious usage of their media. For instance, “Left Behind” shows a bronze branch on a raised gray slab. Impaled on the branch rests a white, disparately both flaky- and sturdy-looking replica of a water bottle. The “bottle” was 3D printed from a model of a plastic disposable bottle. “Day in Day Out” also takes advantage of its physicality, featuring both bloomed and dead (or maybe, growing) flowers made of partially stripped electrical wire. The creative use of different media — especially those that are usually considered jarringly unnatural — invites consideration of the their quality both as they exists in the artwork and as they exists as a material.
The articles of the exhibit do not rely exclusively on context to be meaningful. Take the piece “In The Making,” which does apparently less in terms of lighting and atmospheric effects but still manages to communicate themes of simultaneous growth and decay, natural and artificial environment.
In viewing Baezinger’s exhibit, there is not much of the common anxious desire to “understand” the art. There is little of the usual urgency to work up inflated ideas that would probably never honestly cross the mind looking at anything, let alone what our inner pragmatist is so ready to reduce to a bent up sheet of metal. “Wayside” is compelling to absorb. It makes its message clear very naturally and only requires relaxed, paced observation.
“I would urge visitors to enjoy the gallery space by slowing down — use it as a chance to escape the noise and haste of your “to do list” and to notice what associations and insights emerge over time,” said Packard, offering a preparation of sorts for people going to see the exhibit.
The exhibit will be in the List Gallery from September 10 to October 26. Baenziger will be giving a lecture at 4:30 p.m. on September 25, with a gallery reception afterwards.