Near the beginning of his great poem “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman ecstatically invokes a burgeoning world and our connection to it. “Urge and urge and urge,” he wrote, “always the procreant urge of the world...Always substance and increase...always a knit of identity.” It’s especially worth recalling Whitman—a consummate urban New Yorker, yet one deeply sympathetic to and energized by nature—in our era, when such a “knit of identity” between us and the natural world seems profoundly frayed, and oftentimes nonexistent. In the recent presidential campaign there were three debates, moderated by esteemed journalists. Not one of these journalists asked the two candidates a single question about climate change, which is likely the most pressing issue facing us. There were questions about energy, about how we can best use natural resources, but no recognition of how we are inextricably part of nature, and also how we are greatly contributing to dire upheaval in the natural world. This lack of recognition, itself a form of blithe denial, continues the anthropocentric fantasy that we—quite recent additions to a planet more than four billion year old—are somehow above nature, or masters of nature. Increasingly, this fantasy looks perilous. It is therefore a very good idea to turn to artists who understand, with both intellect and feeling, our connection with nature; who comprehend our links to trees and fossils, wind and soil, and to cycles of growth and decay, and whose compelling works are born of a sustained engagement and dialogue with the natural world.
Substance and Increase brings together Gabriela Albergaria, a Portuguese artist living in Lisbon and London, and Shinji Turner-Yamamoto, a Japanese artist living in Ohio. Both uncommonly utilize (and remake, and transform) natural substances, at times collected in far-flung locales, in hybrid works that are both found and made, natural and mediated—real nature-culture conflations. For Albergaria, trees, leaves, bark and soil are just a few of her primary materials which she employs in sculptures, drawings, and text-based works. Her elongated, quietly stunning drawing in 11 panels represents the space between two Sweet Gum trees planted close to one another in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Albergaria fits organic growth— towering trunks, scraggly limbs reaching in multiple directions, a swirling canopy of leaves— into a multipart, geometric system, which is a distinctly human invention. This charged encounter between two trees evokes relationships and connections—between individuals, separate locations, and ultimately between nature and us. Albergaria excels at eclectic works, responding to the anthropocene age, that thoroughly blend nature and the human. A stack of lovely colored pencil on paper drawings references the colors of leaves that Albergaria collected in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and preserved over years. This work rather hilariously suggests fabric swatches at a home decorating store. Three monochromatic carpets on the floor are coupled with accompanying colors and texts on the wall. The wool carpets, handmade via a traditional Portuguese technique, were dyed with three natural pigments, ochre, sienna, and umber, derived from earth; domestic objects for interior spaces are thus suffused with the outdoors. Numbers on the carpets refer to the color list of Faber-Castell color pencils, while the texts on the wall, looking like an outsize color chart at the hardware store, denote the actual composition of the dyes.
Among Turner-Yamamoto’s chosen substances, incorporated into enthralling paintings and mini-sculptures, are fragments of West Virginia coal, 450-million-year-old Ordovician fossils, growing crystals, quartz, wind, rain, and ceramic archaeological shards. With their subtle earth tones and lovely striations, Turner-Yamamoto’s Sidereal Silence paintings, composed outdoors in Ireland, aren’t landscape paintings at all but instead paintings made by and with the land and environment, and they include fossil dust, turf ash, tree resin, mica, rainwater and other materials. His gritty, yet also delicate and sensitive, Constellaria paintings likewise include various substances, some attached directly to the canvas, while his small sculptures, which resemble geologic specimens, fossils, and archaeological fragments but also seem magical and talismanic, are actually hybrid creations, crystals, for instance, that he induced to grow around a piece of West Virginia coal. Time is also one of Turner-Yamamoto’s chief themes. His works embrace a vast scale of both geologic time and cultural history.
Both artists incorporate raw natural substances into their work, and both also deal in increase. Albergaria’s meticulous (even obsessive) drawings arise from an accrual of thousands of marks while Turner-Yamamoto’s works, both paintings and sculptures, are also additive, and often change over time. Both artists’ works are analytical and in some ways scientific—they are based on a serious study and close observation of nature—but also gorgeous, evocative, contemplative and frankly sublime. There is no haughty disregard for nature here. Instead what one encounters are thoughtful and spirited human intersections with the living world.
Gabriela Albergaria is a Portuguese artist based in Lisbon and London. Albergaria's work involves one territory: Nature. The artist views gardens/cultural landscapes as elaborated constructs, representational systems and descriptive mechanisms that epitomize a set of fictional beliefs that are employed to represent the natural world. More generally, the images of gardens and plant species are used as devices to reveal processes of cultural change through which visions of nature are produced. Having completed a degree in Painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Porto, Albergaria held numerous residencies, such as Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (2000/2001) / Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris (2004) / Villa Arson, Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Nice (2008) / The University of Oxford Botanic Garden, in collaboration with The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford (2009/2010) and Winter Workspace, Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center, New York (2012), Residency Unlimited, New York, USA (2015), and Flora ars+natura, Bogotá, Colombia (2015)
Shinji Turner-Yamamoto is a Japanese born U.S.-based artist known for paintings, sculptures, and installations employing elemental materials such as trees, fossils, and minerals, creating profound viewer connections with the essential in nature and time. Turner-Yamamoto studied at Kyoto City University of Arts, and, at Accademia di Belle Arti, Bologna. His recent projects are About Trees, Zentrum Paul Klee, Switzerland, and Sidereal Silence. Other solo shows include Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Villa Croce, Genoa, Italy; Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, Ireland; and Embassy of Japan, Washington, DC. Projects include MONGOLIA 360°: Land Art Biennial; Disappearances, SiTE:LAB at an abandoned industrial building, Grand Rapids, Michigan, which received the 2011 ArtPrize International Juried Award.
Gregory Volk is a New York-based art writer, freelance curator, and Associate Professor in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University. He writes regularly for Art in America, where he is a contributing editor, and his articles and reviews have also appeared in many other publications. Among his recent contributions to exhibition catalogues are essays on Miriam Schapiro (Eric Firestone Gallery,) Francis Alÿs (Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art, London), and Fred Tomaselli (Begovich Gallery, Cal State Fullerton.) His most recent curated exhibition was Michelle Stuart, Theatre of Memory: Photographic Works at the Bronx Museum in 2016.