“Graffiti Trees,” a new exhibition of drawings by Mary Reilly, marks a tangential departure for the artist; moving away from photorealistic portrayals of natural, open spaces, she homes in on human intervention in the landscape, specifically, the scarred surfaces of tree trunks. “I found all of the images from my Graffiti Tree series within the woods of Alley Pond Park, Queens,” Reilly says of the new works. With some of the tree carvings used as reference images dating back to the 1930s, the works speak to time, history, and tradition. In addition to the natural beauty of the flora and the found text’s formal qualities, Reilly’s images are a quasi-anthropological documentation of people interacting with natural spaces they hold in common.
The trees Reilly draws are seemingly covered with hand-inscribed images, made by groups of people and for appreciation by other people. Though they seem ephemeral in their mystery and spontaneity, they were created as nearly permanent testaments to people and their values. Graffiti Tree 4 (2014) features an especially dense composition, with assorted natural nicks and scratches on a tree trunk, surrounded by inscriptions such as “IRONMAIDEN,” “SABBATH,” “ZEPPLIN,” and initials and names: “JOE,” “JP,” “GP,” and so on. Complicating the image is the almost gestural intrusion of leaves and shadows, dappling the tree with sunlight. In the background, she has carefully rendered the out-of-focus light breaking through boughs and brush. Reilly, explaining the social documentation of the imagery, says, “Almost every tree had something carved on it which made me imagine the people from the surrounding neighborhoods walking into the park, whether it be kids drinking, smoking and hanging out, or lovers taking a stroll.”
A similar tree of greater austerity reads simply “LED ZEPPELIN,” marking another youth’s intense obsession, now partially obscured by a small, graceful branch. More enigmatically, Mushroom Man (2014), depicts an explosion topped by a psychedelic mushroom cap. Below the image, which is carved meticulously are bubbly initials, “H.B.” and “SO,” monuments to unknown people at an unknown time. The trunk fills the entire picture plane in both this and the former drawing, becoming a painterly surface of visual texture. In Luv Shines (2014), that slogan is carved in large block letters, underscored by a star shining on a heart. The Robert Indiana-like message is one of evergreen hope and affection, divorced from the specifics of two lovers’ initials.
“Graffiti Trees” is on view at Garvey | Simon Art Access, New York, Jan. 8–Feb. 7, 2015.