María Elena González Talks to the Trees at Hirschl & Adler Modern
The artist continues her exploration of the dialogue between nature and art.
For most people, a tree is a just a tree. For Cuban-American artist María Elena González, a stand of birch trees is the source for a detailed body of work that began with the transformation of bark into music (via player piano roll) and has evolved into a deeper exploration of the language of trees. The fruits of this study, a series of sculpture, video, works on paper, and installation, are on view in “Tempo,” her just-opened show at Hirschl & Adler Modern.
Titled Tree Talk, the series’ genesis dates to 2005, when González spent the summer as a resident faculty member at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Each morning, she sat overlooking Lake Wesserunsett, taking in the beauty of the surrounding trees.
After creating rubbings from several birches, the artist began noticing that the subtle patterns in the striations of the bark looked almost as if they were notations.
“The particularity of the birch and its visual parallel with the piano roll is so uncanny,” González told artnet News in a phone conversation. In response to that visual, she digitally scanned the tree bark and its distinctive markings, and laser-cut the resulting musical “score” onto a player piano roll.
“I had no expectations whatsoever,” said González of the experimental piece. “It was an amazing thing to hear the first time—and it’s still an amazing thing to hear. It’s such an incredible composition with musical riffs that repeat in different keys.”
The contemplative beginnings of the series are prominently referenced in Tempo, the new video installation piece featuring a leafy view of Lake Wesserunsett (precisely the spot where the artist was sitting when she conceived of Tree Talk). González has crafted two miniature wooden chairs (from birch she collected on site) that are placed in front of a video projector so they cast a shadow, to scale, in the shade of the trees in the projection. Watching it, you can almost feel the coolness of the shade and the sounds of the birds can cause your mind to wander in revery.
Although this is González’s first exhibition with the gallery, Hirschl & Adler previously showcased her work in a monographic booth at the 2016 ADAA Art Show, also in New York. There, the highlight was undoubtedly the player piano, which, several times a day, would be turned on and begin playing the birch tree’s haunting natural composition. Because the piano is part of an earlier phase of the series, the artist chose not to include it in the current show, focusing rather on the evolution of the language through objects. Visitors who want to hear the music, however, are able to listen to the music via iPad in the gallery.
“I was asked so many times, ‘How did you get that idea?'” González said. Her response, Tempo, “is capturing the moment of conception, in a way.” The artist returned to the lake at Skowhegan to film the spot where it all began. The hour-long footage, shot in the early morning, plays on a loop.
To accompany the video, González has crafted two miniature wooden chairs from birch she collected on site. Placed in front of the projectors, the chairs cast a life-size shadow on the video, showing where the artist was sitting when she conceived of the work.
“It’s one of those places where contemplating nature, its bucolic splendor, has an amazing effect,” said the artist. “At least it does on me.”
That engagement with nature helps tie González’s work to the gallery’s overall program, associate director Tom Parker told artnet News in a phone conversation. “We consider ourselves one of the last truly encyclopedic galleries in the world today, and we really enjoy being able to create certain juxtapositions,” he said, noting that “Tempo” fills three of Hirschl & Adler’s five exhibition galleries, and is being shown alongside more historical work.
“There is a very established tradition in American art in interest in the land,” said Parker, who believes there is a strong connection between González and the great nature painters of the Hudson River School. “When I see Maria Elena I can’t help thinking that this is right out of Thoreau. She is contemplating nature in its purest form.”
It hasn’t, however, always had such a prominent role in her work, which started off with a far more architectural bent. Her rise to prominence can perhaps be traced to Magic Carpet/Home, a 1999 Public Art Fund project that took the floor plan of a Red Hook apartment building and transformed it into a wavy flying carpet, with playground surface material. In a 2002 installation at the Bronx Museum of Art, titled Mnemonic Architecture, she did a full-size recreation of the layout of her childhood home from memory, creating a sculptural dialogue with the architecture of her memory.
Since receiving her MFA in sculpture from San Francisco State University in 1983, González has had solo shows at El Museo del Barrio in New York (1996) and the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu (2006), among other venues. She also received the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome (2003), and was a 2006 Guggenheim Fellow.
After years spent working closely with the bark stripped from two fallen birch trees in Skowhegan (after the show she plans to start in on a third tree), González has returned to the sort of object-making that defined her earlier practice, and remained a through-line even as she experimented with executing the piano roll.
“When María Elena got the idea that she thought that she could transfer the markings on a tree into music, she had no idea how she was going to do it,” said Parker, who believes she succeeded because “she’s a maker.” González would likely agree.
“Making things has always been my thing,” she said. As a child, while her brother was off taking piano lessons, she would be in the carpentry studio. Though the artist doesn’t consider herself musical, incorporating music into her work was a natural thing: “[As] I grew up, the family was always dancing at every party. So it’s always been part of my life.”
“Throughout the process of making these compositions…I started thinking about bringing the music back to the object,” González said. Riffing off the shape of the piano roll, her new works, which she conceived of as sculpture as musical instruments, are made in wood, concrete, and ceramic. In some ways, the project has perhaps reached an inevitable conclusion for the artist, who said that “though it was fantastic not to have an accumulation of actual spacial things, I can’t help it…. I can’t stop making objects.”
“I think people who give it the time to truly understand it, and understand the entire group as an overall statement, are pretty entranced by it,” said Parker. “It involves sound, video, music, sculpture, works on paper… it’s just an incredibly rich experience.”
As for González, the overarching feel is that of the wonderment of nature. “It’s such an astonishing thing that comes from the tree. I often feel that the tree is the composer,” she said. “A lot of the time, I don’t even take credit.”
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