The art and design exhibition Genius Loci: Learning from Nature’s Muse opened Sunday, July 8 at Brushwood, the historic home at Ryerson Woods. We had a great turn-out: over 130 people viewed works by 12 artists, designers, and architects.
Each work selected for the show captures the spirit of a particular natural environment. The concept was to find artists and designers whose work is not only inspired by these places—prairie, woods, and lakefront—but seems to be born of these landscapes.
Topo House by the Milwaukee architecture firm Johnsen Schmaling is a great example. This private residence blurs the line between what is landscape and what is architecture. Located in the “driftless region” of Wisconsin, it’s green roofs seem to spring up from the earth’s natural topography. The building is represented in the exhibition through scale models, architectural renderings, and photographs of the (nearly) completed structure.
Another architect, Jessica Calek, presented designs for a Studio in the Woods. The branch-like framework of the building’s structural system pays homage to its wooded surroundings, but also recalls the “primitive hut” of Vitruvius and Laugier, a metaphor for architecture’s roots in the natural world.
Cynthia Winter (also an architect) displayed a series of watercolors titled Roadtrip: The Seasons at Ryerson Woods. Seen together, these near-abstract, small-scale images—painted on postcard-sized paper—read as stills from a film, capturing a sense of movement through time and through the landscape.
Jennifer Hines displayed a very different series of works. The simplicity of her individual ink drawings, Untitled Abstractions, is deceptive. But viewed collectively, her images capture an entire ecosystem: seemingly separate organisms which together create a holistic environment. Another series, displayed with the mini-dioramas in the Library, takes a more psychological approach. Forest Photos are imaginary arboreal landscapes where trees serve as metaphors for human existence. Here, Hines’ depicts states of being, rather than actual physical places.
Also in the Library is a conceptual work by artist Rachel Kauff. Her series Field Books documents three distinct ecosystems: prairie, woods, and wetlands. By leaving the hand-bound wordless books for 20 days in each landscape—open to the elements—Kauff allowed Nature to record her own stories in her own language.
Also charting conceptual territory is Doug DeWitt. The long horizontal lines of his constructions, made from found materials, recall the flat Illinois prairie. These psychological landscapes capture the essence of the rural Rustbelt: its faded wooden architecture, rusted steel equipment, and overgrown vegetation—nature reclaiming the land.
Also working in a horizontal format is photographer Michael McGuire. His images reflect a kind of surreal or dreamlike remembrance of Lake Michigan. By reproducing one section of the lakefront over and over, he captures an illusion of the lake’s vastness. The particular location represented in each photo might remain ambiguous, but the subject matter—and spirit of the place—is unmistakable.
Another photographer, Barry Phipps, photographs trees in different seasons while subtlely addressing the relationships between humans and nature. In his photo Cahokia (Winter) the long shadows of giant trees reach toward earthen mounds made by humans nearly 1,000 years ago. The scene captures the mystery and monumentality of this ancient site, as well as the quality of light on a typical Midwestern winter’s day.
Anne Kauff (Rachel Kauff’s mother) captures light and color in her masterful oil paintings of northern Illinois prairies and woods. She paints outdoors which brings an immediacy to the images—a freshness and vitality that is difficult to achieve within the confines of the artist’s studio. Her approach is perhaps the most traditional of the group, but allows her to effectively capture the spirit of prairie, woods, and sky.
Looking to the Des Plaines River for inspiration, conceptual artist Meaghan Burritt created a site specific installation for the show. Project In Situ: Des Plaines River Specimen 1 (PI:DPS1) reconstructs a fragment of the landscape inside of Brushwood, shifting its context and challenging us to reconsider an overlooked part of the natural environment: a “debris pocket” on the river. The installation—including found objects collected from the river banks—is a meditation on time, movement, and the interconnectedness between humans and nature.
Finally, furniture designer Jacob Wener of Modern Industry displays three of his designs in the Great Room: a coffee table, a console, and several benches. Horizontal lines reflect the city’s flat terrain. Reclaimed wood recalls Chicago’s motto Urbs in Horto—a city of parks and tree-lined boulevards. The recycled steel framework references Chicago’s legacy of architectural innovation and structural engineering feats. The final synthesis of form and materials captures the spirit of the City of Broad Shoulders.
When organizing the show, I purposely chose this diversity of artists and range of approaches to the shows themes. Each individual artist, in his or her own way, is listening to the genius loci and creating pieces that are in harmony with the natural environments that inspired them.
—Franck Mercurio, Curator
Franck Mercurio is an independent arts consultant, curator, and writer based in Chicago. Before starting his own consultancy business, Franck served for eight years as an exhibition developer for the Field Museum. Last year he curated the Art of Green (10 July 2011 – 31 August 2011) for Friends of Ryerson Woods, an exhibition that featured the work of twelve regional artists and designers who are creating art and designing objects in sustainable ways.
Genius Loci: Listening to Nature’s Muse is on exhibition in the Brushwood Gallery at Ryerson Woods in Deerfield, Illinois until August 31, 2012. Brushwood is open to the public: Tuesday – Friday, 10am-2pm; Sunday 1-3pm; or by appointment. For more information, contact Friends of Ryerson Woods at 847.968.3343 or visit www.ryersonwoods.org/Programs/Art/ArtExhibitions.html.