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‘Arboreal Architecture’: Exploring the visual history of trees

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Jan Georg van Vilet’s “Saint Jerome Reading under a Tree.” Photo courtesy of the Cantor Arts Center.

“Arboreal Architecture” is a new Cantor exhibition that characterizes trees as evocative subjects and as architects of human thought. The exhibit traces the artistic representation of trees across time and between various cultures. Trees are used as a metaphor for the knowledge structures that constitute our understanding of the world and as a mode of highlighting cultural differences.

Built around the concept of exhibition as form, the arrangement of the pieces in itself reflects the connective, unifying nature of trees. The curator actively engages with the works on display, framing trees as diagrams, as embodiments of people, as elements of nature and as metaphor. “Arboreal Architecture” is presented in three sections: “Branching Out,” an evolutionary tree diagram that traces artistic development in various schools; “Heartwood,” which uses trees to embody human engagement with the world around them; and “Widespread,” a mosaic of varying cultures and themes united by the motif of the tree.

In “Branching Out,” pieces are arranged chronologically on a timeline that has been physically painted onto the wall. The works on display, which range from pencil sketches to photographic prints, reflect art movements in their respective time periods. “The Fallen Tree, Fontainebleau,” a realistic 1831 graphite study by Eugene Blery, presents the tree in a dreamlike, ethereal manner. Blery uses subdued, neutral tones to convey a sense of ephemerality. Though a figure is present in the piece, Blery’s composition draws the viewer’s eye towards the smooth contours of the fallen log. Henri Edmond Cross’s “Trees (Arbres),” painted in 1909, pays homage to the Expressionist movement through its experimentation with abstract forms, gestural mark-making and a garish color palette.

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Henri Edmond Cross’s “Trees (Arbres).” Photo courtesy of the Cantor Arts Center.

“Heartwood” frames the tree as a powerful conveyor of emotion, featuring four pieces hung parallel to one another. In Jan Georg van Vilet’s “Saint Jerome Reading under a Tree,” the silhouette of a tree almost perfectly mirrors Saint Jerome’s posture. The Dutch artist’s expressive use of light and shadow gives the impression that the tree is a dark, brooding entity. Conversely, William Trost Richards’s “Study of Tree Bark” is a more delicate representation of the tree, focusing on the texture of the tree itself rather than the gesture.

“Roots Widespread” displays the tree in differing cultural backdrops. East Asian, European, Egyptian and Native American works are featured prominently here, ranging from iconic Japanese landscape paintings to figurines carved out of wood. Here, the exhibit emphasizes the omnipresence of the tree, rooted in our perception of the world.

“Arboreal Architecture” succeeds in that it takes a seemingly mundane topic and places it in different contexts, eliciting the delicate beauty and multifaceted nature of the tree.

“Arboreal Architecture” is on view until July 20, 2015 at the Cantor Arts Center.

Contact Eric Huang at eyhuang ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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