Tuesday, March 5, 2013

No Ordinary Garden

            We have "an ambiguous relationship with nature," artist Linda Huey says.
            A ceramic artist, who began with pottery and moved on to sculpture, Huey spent years working on an installation called "Dark Garden" currently on view at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass.      
            On the one hand, we continually celebrate nature's beauty. Our fundamental images of beauty, perfection, peace of mind, even happiness are derived from backyard nature, vacation playgrounds, and an entire sensory vocabulary of universal symbols for life on earth -- the beauty of the stars, the sunset, the thousand moods of ocean, seashore, flowing streams, and crystal blue lakes against green summer backgrounds. All of these are faces of the natural world. Nature is where we "go" to be happy. We sit on the deck, play in the grass, grow plants on our high-rise balcony, climb a tree if we're still spry enough, pick-it-ourselves when we crave the best strawberries, blueberries, apples, shop at an outdoor market, hike (and hunt and fish) in the forest glades and mountains that have sustained our spirit all our lives. And -- it's worth reminding ourselves of this every once in a while -- when human beings invent a "paradise" we make it a garden.
            We go "indoors" to make our home, at least in temperate climate zones, and for most of us work is indoors as well, but for the goods of the spirit and our ideas of beauty we turn to "capital-N" nature.   
            And then we turn our back, go indoors to get warm and watch TV, and a backhoe comes along and digs the place up.
            The litter in the street, the old tire dumped in a pond, the hell of mountain top removal and what-the-frack environmental destruction are all of a piece for Linda Huey's work.
            "This is no ordinary garden," Huey says of "Dark Garden."
            Her "somber courtyard" style garden installation is made of clay "plant forms" -- tall stems, thorns, heavy seed pods, torn flower petals, stringy leaves bedecked with impressions of insects, computer parts, lost toy cars. The garden's skeletal structure is held together by rusted iron rebar (part of the litter that remains whenever 20th century structures are torn down or fall apart) that support five- to nine-foot plants stems.
            To cite Huey's own inventory of the parts in this "Dark Garden," the visitor to this visionary setting finds "flowers with graffiti, broken antennas, barbed wire, caged birds, skeletons, leaves infested with cars, and actual nails and bolts fired into the clay."
            At their base, the plant forms rise from clay slabs representing pieces of a nasty degraded waste-lot earth made of "fossilized trash and computer parts." She tosses in a few garden gnomes as well. Their vacuously "happy" presence symbolizes, she says, our "denial of environmental concerns."
            Huey sees a continuum between littering and chemical waste, "from plastic cups to carbon emissions." Her painstakingly constructed, esthetically compelling sculptures are intended to express a deep concern about nature's survival. Since "nature" is where we all live and breathe it's a concern we should all have unless we're planning to survive in a bubble somewhere. Where exactly? And how many of us?
            I found Huey's "Dark Garden" installation starkly beautiful, even though it represents a wounded "nature" rather than a thriving one. These plants still rise from the earth, though the earth is littered and polluted, and open their flowers even as pieces of toy cars hang from them.
            I've always been fascinated by those waste lot borderlands where human uses of the landscape have left a mess behind, or where our consumption of resources is still encroaching on little strips of undeveloped land. The interactions of survival and decay in such places, wetlands perhaps, or urban lots in old neighborhoods, have their own moving vibrations.
            Huey's "real" garden in her New York State home blooms with flowering plants and the vegetables she and her husband eat all year. Lots of us cope with our worries about earth's future, at least in part, by fashioning our own little nature retreats.
            But her "Dark Garden" at Fuller Craft -- a "nightmare garden" Anne called it -- is a reminder that private retreats are not enough.