Tree of Life Series – works exhibited at Aesthetic Experiments

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Tree of Life Series

Experiments in mixed Media on an Ecological Theme

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Tree of Life Series Notes

Each painting in the “Tree of Life” series is a different experiment with mixed media. Acrylic media extrusion and sculpting of paint, paper, string, and textiles are used to create a three dimensional relief and complex layered textures.  Poured techniques are used to create complex layers of transparent pattern, with paint features almost frozen in glass.  Retroreflective glass beads, gritty oxide powders, sand, and other media are also used to create different effects.  The goal of these explorations in media is to create paintings that are active, variable, and sculptural.  These works engage and interact with the viewer, in contrast to more static and flat traditional approaches to painting.

Each Tree of Life painting is a different treatment of Trees; Trees as symbols that anchor the human psyche and Trees as species with a prominent role in stabilizing Earth’s ecology. There are several ecological and bioscience themes running through the paintings in the series.

Trees represent the web of life, and the connectivity of the species on earth.   Evolutionary connections and ecological connections are inextricably linked through natural selection, the formation of ecological niches, and through various ways that life forms have remodeled the Chemistry of the Earth.

A prominent theme is evolution, and our common molecular heritage (DNA and RNA).  “Autotroph”, “Genome” and “Heredity” each incorporate an evolution and DNA subject.   The DNA helix is present in these three paintings, sometimes as double helical ladder patterns in the branches, other times as tactile three dimensional double helices created by winding media while extruding through two small holes.  In “Genome” the tree trunk and branches are comprised almost entirely of extruded double helical shapes made from acrylic media.

An example of a Phylogenetic “Tree of Life” used to represent the relatedness of different species

“Autotroph” also contains double helical patterns, along with other references to the evolution of life on Earth – biochemistry “bubbling up” from the soup.  Retroreflective glass spheres in “Autotroph” don’t sparkle so much as they seem to glow, enhancing the light and color in different areas of the painting as the viewer moves past.  These spherical lenses were used to put leaves on the tree, invisible at most angles, but softly glimmering in indirect light. 

The role of trees as ecological regulators is explored in “In the Air”, “Rooted”, “Albedo”, “Canopy”, “Old Growth”, and “Vertical Space”.  Trees play an important role in maintaining the interconnected fabric of life.    Mixed media textured dimensional approaches are used to create form and tree symbolism, and to evoke presence and absence in many of these paintings.   Three-dimensional textural presence is often juxtaposed with ghostly transparency or colors that usually denote negative spaces.  The combination of two disparate visual ideas intimates at the role and state of trees and vegetation in the modern world.  These life forms are critical to our survival.  They maintain the ecological balance and keep the fabric of life on Earth from unraveling.  At the same time their own ability to survive and thrive has been challenged by changes in our environment.

“Albedo” is a scientific term describing the amount of radiant energy an astronomical body reflects back into space.  Changes in atmospheric chemistry can affect the albedo of the Earth, for example an increase in carbon dioxide due to pollution and deforestation.  “Albedo” contains a rainbow spectral pattern in the background, referring to light color and energy.  A faint raised texture and wash of silver make the painting reflective and evoke convective and radiative heat transfer and the movement of air.  Mirrored hemispheres embedded in the paint emphasize the property of reflection and allude to Trees contribution to the Earth’s Albedo.

Changes in the surface of the Earth also affect the albedo.  Leaves reflect differently than asphalt.  “Canopy” uses extruded acrylic and large mica flakes to create a weathered complex trunk and glimmering leafy canopy.  The overall pattern and form of the painting evokes an olive tree, a cornerstone of commerce in early human civilizations in the West.  The rich movement in the leaves almost creates a feeling of shade and sheltering.

“Vertical Space” expands on the idea of a leafy Canopy and explores the vertical environments created by trees and forests.  Three dimensional textured effects from stiffened fabrics, paper, and string create volumes and levels within the leaves of the tree.  The complex interpenetrating shapes invite exploration.  One can imagine having a tiny treehouse or nest in the porosity of the trunk and leaves.

“Old Growth” is a comment on the role of Old growth trees in preventing erosion and stabilizing forest ecosystems.  A substantial thick tree form anchors the painting.  The thick three dimensional relief of the trunk is painted white, almost creating a negative space against the swirling colors of the background.  The whitewashing of the tree symbolizes the absence of many Old growth trees from managed forests.  The trunk dissolves into branches of paper mache and string, almost seamlessly connecting the Old Growth tree to the teeming energy of the background – the forest ecosystem.

“Prometheus” is more oblique and metaphoric.  In Greek mythology, Prometheus gave mankind fire and was punished for doling out such a powerful and dangerous gift.  In “Prometheus” the tree is more abstracted and symbolic than in some of the other paintings.  It has been touched by the roiling fiery energy of the background, but it is unclear whether it has been burnt or simply transformed.  Fire and heat are the basic power sources driving Industrialization and mechanization.  These are tremendously useful and beneficial tools, but sometimes one wonders whether humans control the tools or whether the tools control us.   Are they transformative or are we merely burning ourselves up?

Wildfire is a more literal take on Trees and Fire.  Changing climate conditions, human incursions into wild areas, drought and other factors have led to widespread and severe forest fires in some regions.  Wildfire is a comment on how trees are challenged and destroyed in these fires.

The series includes some ink drawings that abstract tree structures.  Two of these look at the tree symbol in a Contemporary Science and technology context.  “Evolutionary Tree” takes the DNA tree of life idea from paintings like “Genome” and renders the tree and the DNA symbol in traceries of hand drawn ink on paper.  The dense details and the fineness of the lines evoke the densely informative phylogenetic maps used in the Biological sciences to illustrate heredity, evolution, and relatedness of species.

A very detailed biological Tree of life

Variation on a Cayley Tree explores the tree structure as a mathematical symbol.  A Cayley tree is a type of branching lattice known as a Bethe lattice.  These branching lattices are not one dimensional lines but they’re not two dimensional planes either.  They’re somewhere in-between and have what is called a “fractal dimension”.  The dimensionality and discrete branch and node architecture of Bethe lattices can make it easier to solve different types of Physics problems when they’re mapped onto the lattice instead of in a continuous 2-D or 3-D space.

An example of a Bethe lattice

Two additional drawings, “Silent Witness and “Birch Abstraction” find different patterns in trees and abstract them.  These drawings function as studies for the forms and patterns in the other works.


Tree of Life – new series!

Hope, original acrylic and fiber tree

Refresh, original acrylic and fiber tree

Renew, original acrylic and fiber tree

Renew, original acrylic and fiber tree