Matte, Bone & Light: The Skeleton Trees
I am originally from Montana, a Republican-leaning state with minimal social and cultural infrastructure (I like to say, that which doesn’t kill you becomes your nickname), but abundant access to nature. I grew up with a luxury of unstructured time—hours, sometimes days—to observe the form, texture, taste, smell and grit, the luminosity and threat of the natural world at hand. Today, living a frenetic urban life with little opportunity to linger, this artwork is, for me, a meditation on that interaction with the natural world.
The Meditations on Trees are a departure from my usual painting, which wrangles with archetypes, religion, politics and history, the role and experience of women. Because I consider nature to be its own best representation, I have questioned how it can be recounted, how the ineffable can be captured on a flat artwork with mere tools. Yet my heart frequently aches with noise and pressure and work. I am estranged from the deep silence, the calm and intense attention the natural world induces, and I need a totem to call up that peace in the physical space in which my modern life is conducted.
Trees evoke an innate empathy in me. As with people, they are most poignant naked. In their skin I see thirst. I see the same attempt at self-protection, the same vulnerability and revelation of age and experience as my own. I want to lay hands on bark to exchange sympathy and knowledge, as I want to hold my nephew when he’s sick, my mentor’s aging hand as he declines. In the frames of trees, I find the same evolutionary strategies—scale for stability, brevity for flexibility—as I see in my own line, our literal skeletons and figurative roots having a powerful say in what we may become. And I see that central quality that belongs to trees alone, and is essential to the meditation: same place-ness. We are always in motion—from work to work, task to task, commitment to commitment. Trees are planted in the earth, in one place, until they topple. Whatever movement trees possess, their dance is with the light and life surrounding and moving through them. The signs of their seasons, scars, starvations and survival are visible in how they twist and grow, beautiful or strange, undisguised and informative.
The new pieces for ADS Hats explore the very particular quality of San Francisco’s fog-dispersed light. The art term “matte”—defined as a smooth surface free from shine or highlights, with a rough or granular quality—strikes me as the perfect description for a certain kind of Bay Area sky. Several of these pieces seek to capture those grey-violet skies—seemingly flat, but with an enveloping presence of light behind the haze—and the acute etching of tree forms against them, seemingly black, but never actually anything so simple.
I have included previous work, which also plays between light, form and texture. The Bone pieces layer various papers and applications of paint to achieve a dry, tactile roughness that recalls bark, bones, or aging skin. The Light pieces manipulate layers and combinations of reflective and non-reflective paint—and sometimes paper—to mimic the radiance of light held within a living latticework of branches. Some play with the depth of field so that outlines change character dramatically in different light, as do trees in their natural setting.
These artworks attempt to capture the consoling spirit, the aesthetic imbalance, and the full recall and value of a marvelous living thing. It is a paradox of art that we employ mechanical processes to simulate that which is utterly ephemeral. And yet I embrace that impossible pursuit, taking comfort both in the process and the progeny.
Early artwork can be seen at susanmurdoch.com. To see current work, find my Artist page on Facebook under Montana Murdoch Artwork, or for a short time longer, Susana Montana Murdoch Artist page.