The keen connection between artists and nature springs to dramatic expression in “Common Ground,” a juried exhibit honoring the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service May 20-Sept. 8 at the Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way.
Displaying work by 20 Bay Area artists, the nation’s open spaces appear in dual tones: from microcosmic examinations made as if viewed eyeball-to-canvas or through a magnifying lens, to grand, romanticized step-backs that render mountains and monuments as icons in sweeping portraits of power and beauty. Notable as much for what is largely absent in the images — people and wildlife — it is the overwhelming impression of place, of terra firma, that commands attention.
“None of us came up with a reason that few of the submissions depicted people — other than that nature has a kind of abstract poetry and there’s an idealism about the beauty of nature that captures people,” says juror Stephanie Hanor, director of the Mills College Art Museum. “Maybe that’s a more artistic interest.”
Hanor, along with fellow jurors Katrina Traywick, director at Traywick Contemporary; Laurie Rich, David Brower Center executive director; and Sean Uyehara, director of programs at the Headlands Center for the Arts; selected 23 works from over 400 submissions.
“The submissions were first culled to 150, then down to 23,” says Rich. “The final stage of that took 5 hours. Interestingly, we found that most artists focused on the making and establishment of the parks.”
Asked if the collected works tell a story about the parks, and if that story is particularly a California tale, Rich says, “It’s not a California story, but it’s reflective of wildness that’s in California. It’s a story about artists who find inspiration, beauty and meaning from the natural world. It echoes the Brower Center’s idea that the ecological integrity of the outside world must be preserved.”
The Brower Center is a nonprofit space that houses resident organizations, most focused on environmental and social activism, a gallery, 180-seat theater, conference facilities and the restaurant, Gather.
In addition to nuts and bolts concerns — the gallery’s tightly defined space and concrete walls, meeting the show’s theme, efforts to provide visual and textural variety in the mediums represented — Hanor says the jury looked for art that evoked the park’s essence.
“Environmentalism, abstracted nature, the history of the parks, the parks as refuge for people. Our hope will be that presenting this work will allow people to see the importance of the parks. The emotional impact might spur people to visit, but more, to understand there’s an ingrained human need for nature. We need to help protect it because of that.”
Artist Hopi Breton’s “Land Blanket” makes protection metaphoric in a crusty latex wall sculpture that incorporates fiber and involved the molding of a Navarro Beach cliffside in Mendocino.
“Wall With No Name,” an intriguing mixed media depiction of a sturdy mountain by Kim Miskowicz, was made primarily with sticky-back mailing labels that at one time were not recyclable but have become repurposed through art.
Malcolm Lubliner’s sepia toned “China Camp” photograph, the rare image with people, reminds viewers of the shrimp-fishing village along the shore of the San Pablo Bay that was populated by nearly 500 Chinese people during the late 1800s and is now a National Park System state park. Each work emphasizes history, but also indicates how that history informs the future. “The story is the bigger relationship between humans and nature,” says Hanor.
And part of that relationship is glorying in the majesty of the parks, captured in the microbial activity generating rich, glowing oranges in Karen Preuss’s “Grand Prismatic Spring,” or more dramatically in sheer cliff facings in Christopher Woodcock’s classic, Ansel Adams-style, black-and-white C-print, “Trail Crest,” among others.
Rich says support display materials about how the parks were formed and the essential role art played in their development add context and depth to the selected works. Information about the artist and his or her exploration of the parks accompanies each piece.
Ancillary programs beyond the free exhibit opening event on May 20 include a panel discussion about Point Reyes National Seashore, ranching, and funding public lands (June 23), and a co-presentation with African American Explorations offering young people’s perspectives on improving the park’s diversity and inclusiveness for the next generation of visitors (Aug. 10).