They took all the trees
and put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
a dollar and a half just to see 'em. -- Joni Mitchell ("Big Yellow Taxi")
It's finally happened, just as that song said it would: They're exhibiting trees in an art museum.
No screechy environmental polemic, they are part of the remarkable, nature-worshiping Corcoran Gallery debut of Washington sculptor Emilie Benes Brzezinski, who has, indeed, installed 50 tree trunks -- 12 to 15 1/2 feet tall -- in the museum's Hemicycle Gallery.
Collectively titled "Apotheosis, A Reconstructed Forest," it is a virtual sculptural woodland that visitors can walk through and marvel at. And though poetry -- not environmental politics -- was the artist's stated goal, some sense of what has been lost is inescapable.
Mostly rescued from woodland floors and sawmills (the artist does not cut live trees), these tree trunks are rootless and have no limbs. But by skillful, minimal carving, Brzezinski has made these fallen marvels rise again as symbols of themselves and of their inner life.
Whether or not this installation actually rises above its 50 parts to transmit "the serenity of the forest," as the artist intended, Brzezinski's work amazes in countless other ways, and should be seen by anyone who's ever loved or whittled a tree.
Not the least of the amazements here is the sheer ambition and back-breaking work required to bring the idea to fruition. First, gigantic red oak, black walnut and many other mystery trees from as far away as Maine had to be located and hauled to the artist's McLean studio. Then, aided by chains and pulleys, Brzezinski had to study and plot the inner thrusts and stresses of these trees before beginning to carve each trunk into her basic form, a vertical wedge.
Wielding her chain saw like an abstract expressionist's paintbrush, she cut along what she calls their "lines of growth downgrain," making it possible for these giants to stand again.
But balancing them was just the beginning. Exposing the inner life of these trees was also a major goal, and where there are clues, she makes them show. "Trees in the forest look as if they go straight up, but they don't," Brzezinski said during an illuminating stroll through her show last week. "They twist and turn, each in its own way." To make that clear, she leaves a strip of the outer layer of each tree intact -- sometimes with the bark still on -- so that its upward spiral can be traced with the eye.
There is also a personal history of stresses and survival inside each tree that she seeks to reveal: wounds that have mended; bug holes; nails hammered long ago and -- incredibly -- still there, high up and hidden by new growth.
"A knob tells a lot about how the tree was thwarted, but continued to grow," she points out.
But each tree is different. And to underscore their individuality, Brzezinski intuitively and handsomely punctuates her surfaces with various sawed, chopped and chiseled patterns, such as parallel crosscuts, hatchings and fan shapes left by the saw.
She also subtly colors her raw surfaces in various ways: sometimes with charring, or with something called "rust water," which gives an aged look. In her "forest," she has sometimes added thin, almost imperceptible washes of gray, blue or green to unify the installation. Cherry wood, for instance, turns bright orange when exposed to air. She's tamed it with a thin blue wash.
"The tree tells me what to do, and I respect that," she says. "And at a certain point they also tell me when to stop."
Wife of former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, she was born in Switzerland to Czech parents. Emilie Benes grew up in California and, even as a child, whittled while her father, a former Czech diplomat, carved driftwood. After graduating from Wellesley, where she studied drawing with Hyman Bloom, she attended the Boston Museum School. She has worked on her own ever since, creating many installations and permanent works, some of the most memorable in churches. This is her first solo show in a museum.
The more you walk among the clusters of tree trunks in her "Reconstructed Forest," the more variety you see in the shapes, colors and textures of the wood -- gnarled box elders, sleek slabs of black walnut. Some look like dancers, others like hags. Most, however, remain purely abstract. And after a while, you may get the sense of being not in a forest but in a crowded, somewhat repetitious sculpture show.
There is, in fact, a far simpler, more coherent and expressive piece by Brzezinski on view in the Corcoran Rotunda -- an afterthought for which the Corcoran, to its credit, made room. You'll see it as you walk up the grand staircase. Titled "Vortex," it is truly site-specific in that it plays off the resident nude Venus, who appears to recoil from the gigantic cross sections of splayed red oak that Brzezinski has placed in a semi-circle around her.
Only five chunks of wood have been used here, similar in shape and graduated in size. But they somehow manage to imply a swirling motion that places Antonio Canova's customarily placid goddess at the center of an imaginary whirlwind. It's minimal, but it works.
It also sets up a nice dialogue between past and present, between the smooth, milky, polished perfection of 19th-century neoclassical sculpture and the rough-hewn carving of today, which reveres natural forms, textures and even smells. Stand near the wood and take a whiff.
It should be noted that most of Brzezinski's carvings from the past 10 years -- while always vastly ambitious -- have been on a less Herculean scale than these two installations. Unfortunately, only one such work was sneaked into the Corcoran show: the graceful, two-part "Apollo and Daphne," which stands just inside and to the right of the "forest" entrance. She has also made some stunning outdoor sculptures, some of them shown along with the work of other area sculptors on her sprawling Spring Hill property in McLean. Some are in the form of arches (one is on the catalogue cover); others include giant bowl-shape pieces and endearing over-scale furniture. She is currently working on a whimsical group of over-scale "Musical Chairs" for a show at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, Fla., in 1999.
But installations, by definition, are ephemeral. And though these took two years to put together -- and surely stretched Brzezinski's expressive powers -- they will be dismantled and recycled after the Corcoran show ends. Except for "Apollo and Daphne," finished works, which may end up as a gift to the Corcoran.
Ten years ago, Brzezinski began working with trees by making large rubber molds of their bark, and then casting them in clear resin. She showed them at Osuna Gallery. And even then, in the best examples, you had the sense that she was trying, somehow, to get inside those trees, and to show them to us from the inside out.
She's come a long way toward achieving that goal in her Corcoran show. It deals with only one aspect of her work, but it touches its spiritual essence. It also introduces the museum-going public to an artist who deserves to be better known. And in that respect, the Corcoran has fulfilled the promise that came with the establishment of the Hemicycle Gallery.
This show will continue through Jan. 5. CAPTION: Emilie Benes Brzezinski, in her McLean studio, right, put a forest in the Corcoran's Hemicycle Gallery, above. Another piece shares the gallery's rotunda with Venus.