Lessons from the Forest: Arboreal at / Gallery

Aycoobo (Wilson Rodríguez), Terraza Ancestral (Ancestral Terrace), 2019, Acrylic on paper. Courtesy of / Gallery.

Many people think that humans exist independent from the other animals and organisms we share this planet with. This ideology of superiority and transcendence from our own animality is a cause of centuries-long attempts to dominate the non-human world—which is interwoven with oppression of fellow humans as well. Arboreal, a group exhibition curated by Juana Berrío at / Gallery in San Francisco, takes this sense of detachment as a starting point and asks: what can we humans learn from trees? Trees and forests are complex systems that thrive on and require diversity, cooperation, and interdependence. As organisms with a vastly longer tenure on earth, how can we look toward the arboreal for solutions to the many crises we face? Drawing on Indigenous knowledge, biology, and daily personal practices, artists Aycoobo (Wilson Rodríguez), Bill Fontana, Helen Mirra, Delcy Morelos, Emerson Uýra, and Cecilia Vicuña all offer perspectives on the arboreal that suggest permeable borders with the human and deep lessons to learn.

Aycoobo’s vibrant acrylic paintings of the Colombian Amazon radiate the sense of connectivity that the exhibition associates with trees and forests. Terraza Ancestral (2019), for example, is thick with trees covered in thousands of individually painted leaves. Though lacking the depth of geometric perspective, the interweaving of the trees nonetheless creates the impression of a space teeming with life—its density is almost disorienting. Still, this painting doesn’t seem to represent the idea behind the old adage about not seeing the forest for the trees. The details are not a distraction from the whole; they are constituent parts of the whole. The minutia—including birds, a mammal, and a snake peppered throughout the painting—are entry points into the larger scene. The trees and animals are the forest, and the forest is them.

Emerson Uýra, Série Elementar (Ensaio A Mata Te-Se Come)
Elementary Series (The Plant that Eats Itself Essay)
, 2018. Courtesy of / Gallery.

Emerson Uýra is a fusion of the work and identities of Brazilian artist and biologist Emerson Munduruku and Uýra Sodoma, a drag queen who embodies the arboreal. Two large, stunning photographs of Uýra’s were included in Arboreal, which extend the sense of connectivity seen in Aycoobo’s paintings to the human. In a photograph from “The Last Forest Series (Naked Earth Essay)” (2018), a series protesting deforestation in the Amazon, Uýra Sodoma kneels before a scene of forest destruction, gently placing one of her palms on the clean cut of a fallen tree and the other on her chest. This is a moment of both communion and mourning with the fallen tree. Uýra has said that their work engages with the idea of transmutation and metamorphosis in which humans turn into animals, or in their case, trees and plants.

Of this photograph, Uýra says that it “seeks to remind us that these bodies are also ours. These bodies remind us of our own.” In this way, Uýra Sodoma’s intimacy with the forest—not just the pose, but also her visual blending in with the land—is an expression of the thin boundary between the forest and the human.

Cecilia Vicuña, Sidewalk Forests, 1981. Courtesy of / Gallery.
Cecilia Vicuña, Sidewalk Forests, 1981. Courtesy of / Gallery.
Arboreal, 2021. Installation view. Photo: John Wilson White.


At times, there seemed to be conflict between the density of forest life in Aycoobo and Uýra’s work and the exhibition itself. With very high ceilings and ample space between works on the white walls, the gallery feels sparse, perhaps even lacking the arboreal connectivity driving the artwork. But four photographs from Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña’s 1981 “Sidewalk Forests” series pushes back on this way of thinking.

Taken on New York City streets, these photographs celebrate the vegetation in places and forms with which they are not always associated. In one photograph, what would normally be called weeds grow out of the cracks of a yellow street curb. These tenacious plants permeate the boundary spaces between curb, sidewalk, and street, filling what little void they can find. Normally ignored, if not disliked, these plants are reminders of the persistence and ever-presence of life. Though not strictly trees, Vicuña’s invocation of forests to describe these tufts of life points to the application of arboreal thinking across phyla and kingdoms. In Vicuña’s photographs we see entities that work with rather than against their surroundings, little networks of life that defy the city’s design to squash them out. These photographs are also reminders not to confuse the arboreal with mere density or abundance. There are sparse woodlands and unitary trees, but in each of these cases, the cooperation, connectivity, endurance of the arboreal is always present.

Trees are not the only living creatures whose existence is determined by their interconnectivity to other living beings or who are profoundly shaped by their surroundings. This is true of all life. But the artists in Arboreal don’t reinscribe stark divisions between forms of life. Rather, they focus on the arboreal as an entry point, like Aycoobo’s meticulous trees, to consider the inherent relationality among life.


Arboreal
/, San Francisco
March 26 – June 26, 2021


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Author: Matthew Harrison Tedford

Matthew Harrison Tedford is a writer and scholar based in San Francisco. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Visual Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His art and film criticism has been published in Hyperallergic, Artsy, KQED, Bay Nature, Art Practical, SF Weekly, and elsewhere.