Environmental art is one of those genres so inclusive that it seems to embrace almost anything that references nature – a blade of grass, a leaf, a twig, or natural processes like the tides, or weather, or decay. The genre includes global “conceptual art,” multi-locale installations and massive land sculptures, like the work of Andy Goldsworthy and Andrew Rogers for example. Consider also simple and poignant graphic “paintings,” created through manipulation and arrangement of natural matter and found objects, such as the framed assemblages from the Dutch artist Herman DeVries.
In between is that plethora of stuff that further expands and directs the conversations – to climate change, conservation, biology and ecology, encroachment, recycling, vegetarianism, hydrological cycles, animal meanderings, and much, much more. Currently on view, The Little Gallery/Blackstone enhances this trove with ten sculptural works by Travis Apel, entitled Fiber Position.
Apel responds to this calling by plumbing the very essence of natural materials, here delving into the past, present and future, and asking how these essential building blocks affect the land, landscape, our existence and more importantly, how we respond. He uses various biological matter: roots, branches, twigs, leaves, dried grasses and stalks and mates these with processed plastics, resins, pulps, waxes and lumber.
Upon entering the historic Blackstone mansion, visitors are immediately enticed by a massive, twelve-foot long, flowing wave of maiden-grass, also known as Chinese silver grass, or by its genus, Miscanthus. Peeking around the corner of the foyer, the graceful and impressive “horse-tail” effect of “Oracle” draws us into the cozy, former living room.
Once arrived, however, the wave of grass is abruptly terminated, the base of the sheath cut flat by a thick panel of finished lumber. Not to be outdone, beyond this terminus the Miscanthus sprouts massive “roots,” reaching into the space for reclusive nourishment. Though the gallery is compact, the ten works in this show – nine of which are space-devouring presentations – are all placed so to be relatively easily accessible for viewing.
Unlike the site-specific land art of some contemporary masters of the genre, like Goldsworthy, or Robert Smithson (of “Spiral Jetty” fame,) Apel works on a smaller, personal scale. He employs ordinary materials like discarded garden refuse, and many of his pieces use drippy globs of rubber/plastic glues or resins, some encasing portions in clear plastic sheet, as if protected or preserved. Most of the sculptures marry the biological materials with processed elements, and, in the course, enshrining and ennobling the biological or mineral source materials.
A few of the pieces are larger floor assemblages. Others are displayed on unobtrusive white platforms, pedestals, and in one case, on top of a former residential back door complete with window, painted white and perched horizontally on two massive white hunks of tree trunk. Like most living rooms from the 19th, and early 20th centuries, the gallery has a wood floor, attractive wood trim and casings, and a trimmed fireplace.
Apel utilizes the fireplace for his presentation of “Monument,” an installation consisting of a dense, black wedge of coal, glued together to form a pyre, and resting on the door. An amalgamation of charcoal “chunks” held together by epoxy resin, this pyre initially appears to be a solid pyramid, but, upon closer look, it is open in the back and lit from below by a bright spotlight mounted under the door.
The light pierces the wedge in a few places, due to irregular gaps in the pieces of charcoal. Diminished, maybe due to a daytime visit, the escaping light was barely noticeable. The lighting effect may be more impressive during a night visit or with dimmer room light. The spotlight did produce shards of light and shadow on the white surface of the door due to the uneven bottom edge of the blackened pyre.
Though all the pieces encourage a deeper level of meditation, one of the most impressive pieces is in the living room’s southeast corner. “Upheaval,” is a collection of five pyramidal spires, each enclosing a single, dried corn stalk, emerging from a surrounding mound of small limestone boulders, or possibly concrete remains. The spires, and the stalks within, are seen as both respected storytellers and fragile talismans. In addition, in juxtaposition with the gallery’s architectural elements, a level of contrast is obtained that enhances the artist’s philosophy behind the entire show.
Disregard any thoughts that the wood floor is in peril from the limestone rocks. They’re each meticulously created by the artist from fiber pulp, and each faux rock probably weighs in at ounces rather than pounds.
Much of Apel’s work divulges nature’s leisurely clock and reminds us of the processes involved in the procession. Apel sculptures are lucent but require a bit of thought.
An interesting tidbit; you may notice the artists tends to use the compound version of the word “grassroots,” in his description of his materials, rather than “grass roots” or simply “roots.” Though his intention is not clear, one hopes it deliberately reflects the current cultural use of the word as “foundational, essential,” as coming from the community.
Fiber Position is at the Little Gallery/Blackstone through October 30th. The gallery is open to the public on Thursday and Friday from noon to 6 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Though gallery hours are limited, appointments for off-hour viewing can be made by calling 402-681-1901, or by contacting the gallery through their website at thelittlegalleryblackstone.com.