MARSHLANDS, an interpretation

Finding the angular side of water

I once went for a hike in Eureka’s Elk River Wildlife Area with Lori Goodman. I’ve driven past that area on Broadway at the end of Hilfiker Lane numerous times and never knew that there was anything behind those industrial-looking buildings. Lori took me over six miles through grassy marshes.

There are other areas around Eureka that she frequents. “I walk at King Salmon a lot, I walk at Loleta Reserve, and I just see all these marshlands, and except for the Arcata Marsh most of them are empty,” she told me. “I never run into anyone else, maybe one or two people in all of these places.” For that reason, she has made it her mission to introduce these places to the rest of the community.

She does this with her installations of stylized marshlands. The word “stylized” is your clue that it isn’t a picture of the marsh; it’s her interpretation of it. The colors, shapes and textures are exaggerated and taken out of context and placed in a gallery environment. So her installation titled At Bay, now on exhibit at the First Street Gallery, may not be what you might expect.

The idea is to convey more than what a place looks like, but also what it feels like: “Something that doesn’t mirror or copy the marshes or the bays, but that captures the essence, so that people can have their own experience,” as she puts it.

After spending so much time walking through the marshes, the colors become a part of the artist, and they get translated into the work. Long strips of gold colored paper fill the gallery and convey the artists feeling of “being immersed.” The acid greens and deep blues of the algae-filled (and possibly contaminated) pools of water are represented in concentric squares, and the formality of that shape contrasts with the “chaos and etherealism of the grasses.” Why did the artist choose to represent the water geometrically? Her first response was, “I have no idea.” But in talking about it, she suggested it might have been that the water on the marshes is the thing most altered by humans. Suffice to say that the pools felt more precise, the grasses more organic at the moment in time that she created the pieces.

The question that arises for me is, what takes place for the viewer when an artist takes parts of a landscape, rearranges them and puts them into a different environment? Does this reordering of reality make more of an impression then the original?

Lori’s show is part of the First Street Gallery’s Art and Environment series. The Gallery’s website describes this as “a series of exhibitions that highlight environmental issues as the subject examined by a variety of artists.”

There are a number of ways to approach this and it very often includes artists emphasizing the beauty of our natural landscape, as if to say, “Look at this, this is precious, we need to take care of this.” It may be a literal translation, like the paintings and prints that make up the second half of this year’s Art and Environment exhibit, works by Michael Guerriero, Jim McVicker, Kathy O’Leary and Walt Padgett in a show called Water’s Edge. It is often a description of the environment as it has been impacted by humans. It can be a political statement, or even a reclamation project. Each approach is unique and valuable in its own way. Lori’s approach is to get as far from literal interpretation as possible, to try to get to those unconscious responses that accumulate over hours and hours spent in nature.

The juxtaposition between her abstract portrayal of the marshes, and the very representational portrayals in the rest of the gallery give the viewer an opportunity to compare approaches. I haven’t answered the question I put forward about abstracted reality versus real reality (nor even approached the very thorny question of just what constitutes reality) – perhaps these two shows put together will give you a chance to ponder that for yourself.

And then you can take yourself down the street and up a block to Piante Gallery. The show there is not unlike the dual shows at the First Street Gallery. Becky Evans and Bob Benson have lived and worked together for over 30 years. They are both heavily influenced by the local, natural landscape (Bob is a native of Humboldt County and a member of the Tsnungwe tribe), and, as husband and wife, by each other. However, this show is unique in bringing their work together. Each has their own show, and in a third room of the gallery their work comes together. Like Lori, both Bob and Becky have let the mountains and fields, the rivers and oceans fill them, and their experience flows out and into their works of art.

Bob and Becky are deep thinkers, dedicated to their craft, and greatly involved in the community. Bob says of his work, “My current paintings and sculpture call me to journey deep into the natural world. Through these works I am discovering fellow travelers.” And Becky’s work “… continues to explore water, tides, and the cycle of seasons in such diverse places as The Lake at Morris Graves’ studio, the Prime Meridian on the Thames River, London, and the tides and canals of the Venice Lagoon.”

Lori Goodman’s At Bay and the Water’s Edge group show will be on exhibit at Humboldt State University’s First Street Gallery at 422 First St. in Eureka, through May 18. The work by Bob Benson and Becky Evans will be on display at Piante Gallery at 620 Second St., through April 30.