‘Green Acres’ art review


Three dozen varieties of gourd sprout from Doug Retzler's "Gourd Palace Spirit House," a living sculpture at the Arlington Arts Center (Michael O'Sullivan/The Washington Post)
September 6, 2013

These days, the Arlington Arts Center is looking more like a 4-H camp than an art gallery. Alien-looking gourds have sprouted from a large bamboo structure — part trellis, part walk-in tent — on the front lawn. You can’t cross the central foyer without running into a tree in a planter. And throughout the building you’ll find composting worms under plexiglass; dried flower arrangements; a library of meticulously catalogued wild animal dung; an inactive mushroom farm; photographs of sheep; stacks of cleaned and carded wool; botanical illustrations featuring a year’s worth of produce from the Dupont Circle farmers market; agricultural videos; and a tank filled with algae from Potomac Overlook Regional Park.

I’ve heard the Joyce Kilmer line, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as tree,” but this is ridiculous.

Or maybe not. Maybe what it takes to get us to think about the natural environment is to throw a picture frame around it. (You’ll find an example of that here, too, quite literally.)

Most of the work belongs to Green Acres, an ambitious exhibition that invites contemplation about our connection to — or, more likely, our separation from — nature. Originally organized by independent curator Sue Spaid for the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center, the show, which opened in Arlington in late June, is so large that it has been divided in two. A second exhibition under the same title has just gone on view at the American University Museum, where it will be celebrated with an opening reception Saturday from 6 to 9 p.m. after a 5 p.m. gallery talk.

At Arlington, a pair of thematically related shows includes “Dupont Market,” artist Anita Walsh’s documentation of farmers market produce, and “Agri Interior,” a collaborative installation by Pam Rogers and the art-making duo known as Radio Sebastian (Yumiko Blackwell and Corwin Levi).

Of everything on view, “Agri Interior” most closely resembles traditional art-making (i.e., the kind you need art supplies for, not seeds). Still, it fits n beautifully with all of the other work. In addition to a large, chandelier-like hanging sculpture fashioned from plants and other natural fiber, the show features Rogers’s plant-inspired mixed-media drawings, along with eye-popping sculptures by Radio Sebastian that show artificial flowers (made from colorful Sculpey modeling clay) appearing to burst forth out of books and wood paneling.

Take a good, long look. It’s nice stuff. You can skip most of the videos, which are, quite frankly, tiresome. Mei-ling Hom’s “Mushroom Cap” — a mycorestoration module (or mushroom farm) made of a big ball of oat straw and something identified, evocatively enough, as “mushroom spawn” — would have ’shrooms growing out of it if it were kept moist, which it isn’t.

Still, it is lovely, simply as sculpture.

In terms of sheer acreage, however, the Harrison Studio’s contribution to “Green Acres” — an installation of indoor farming containers exploding with greenery under electric grow lights — leaves the most indelible impression. Part of the “Survival Series,” most of the works on view date from the early 1970s, when they were first devised by husband-and-wife “eco-artists” Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison as a way to raise awareness about the potential for, and importance of, urban farming.

Part art and part activism, their work includes prototypes for farming in places without wide open spaces (e.g., Arlington). The “Strawberry Wall“ is a series of wooden planters mounted on the wall, hosting alternating strawberry and arugula plants, which seem to be thriving under the artificial lights.

But is it art?

Spaid argues that it is, for reasons both aesthetic and conceptual. The tension between the profusion of lush green leaves and the tightly linear planters, for example, is inarguably sculptural. And there is a sensory element in the engagement of visitors, who encounter a world of smells, textures and sights not normally encountered in a gallery.

Okay. Maybe that’s pushing it. If an urban greenhouse is sculpture, then is working in the garden performance art?

Thanks to our increasing disconnection from our food sources, and in a world where salad comes, pre-washed, in a plastic bag, “Green Acres” would probably argue that the answer is yes.

The Story Behind the Work

Doug Retzler looks like a bohemian. A tuft of graying beard sprouts just below his lower lip; he wears yellow Crocs; and there’s dirt under his fingernails. But when I ran into the Baltimore artist puttering around “Gourd Palace Spirit House” — the sculptural installation he built outside the Arlington Arts Center with the design assistance of the community, and which is now overgrown with gourd vines — he said he preferred the term “instigator” to”artist.”

“Farmer” might be just as good.

When Retzler began planting the living sculpture from seedlings earlier this summer, no vine was taller than a foot or so. The plants, he says, barely budged for the first couple of weeks, as they put all of their energy into putting down roots. Once established, they climb up to a foot a day. As of July 28, the structure was heavy with bright orange, warty and otherwise bizarre-looking fruit, hanging at ankle level and overhead. Some is edible, some ornamental, some can be used to make musical instruments and spoons.

Retzler, who calls the structure an “ambassador,” hopes that passersby will see it and be drawn into “Green Acres.” And what other artists might consider vandalism of their work, he calls community engagement. Recently, some person or persons came by — possibly under cover of darkness — and snipped several of the largest gourds, making off with them.

It doesn’t bother Retzler, who says, with a laugh, that he hopes whoever took the art ate it.

— Michael O’Sullivan

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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