Veteran New York artist Mary Hrbacek also has a rural house in northern Vermont. So she is close to nature, and to the woods especially, as this strong show of art, called “Human Nature: Pefka and Sycamore,” about trees with a human presence demonstrates. The black-and-white painted drawings of human-tree amalgams, along with her color paintings and charcoal drawings on paper, indicate the artist’s predilection for the unorthodox natural forms of the parts of trees–Hrbacek likes to concentrate on the short expanses of tree trunks, emphasizing their curving shapes while also paying close attention to a semi-abstract expressive style. Her work might seem slightly old-fashioned to some, being directly figurative. But she also takes abstract impressions of the trees in a free-flowing manner, merging her gift for observation with her ability to paint with open delight. Indeed, the combination is what distinguishes her from other artists, who do not merge the human with trees.
Sadly, the forests are diminishing, and we continue to exploit their resources without too much concern for the future. One would then think that Hrbacek’s art would be melancholic, but that is not the case. Instead, there is a genuine warmth and feeling to what she does. Her art, part of the landscape tradition, if but a specialized, smaller part of it, cannot be read as antiquated, given her ability to capture the angles of trees bent nearly out of recognition into some abstract, visionary version of forestry. If we are going to look at a body of work like Hrbacek’s, which is richly traditional as well as eccentrically new, our pleasure in her art must look to the idiosyncrasies she captures in form–the result both of hard looking and a long familiarity with her theme. Because the forest is slowly but surely being eroded, perhaps to the point of oblivion, so that its capacity to generate metaphor and imaginatively protective environments is damaged in the extreme, we can only see the wilderness as something to be held in high esteem, rather than being experienced as adamantly other or new.
This perception gives the work its implicit melancholy, even when the visual terms of the art are heroic. In Twisted Naxos (2016), the dark forms of branches both rise vertically and extend horizontally across the white background, forming an intersection at the upper and the lower parts of the gnarled vertical branch. The drawing, done in charcoal, possesses the dense, dark, and muted tonality of the material used, and the vertical is truly original, being composed of rounded knots and edged forms that travel up the slow curve of the branch’s ascent. Seizing Relief (2016), of a thick central branch with rough edges rising from a mound-like base (also wood), ends with an abstract welter of smooth forms roughly reminiscent of a bridge. The architectonic strength of the composition is truly powerful–it is as if Hrbacek had decided to etch into our memory the distinguished, living force of trees, made more so by the particular, often strange details of which they are composed. Together, the two drawings offer a vision that maintains their offbeat tenor, also examining the quiddity of nature in highly original ways. Here, it is hard to tell which is more unusual: the shapes of the trunks and branches or the artist’s treatment of them.
Other drawings more freely describe the life of the tree–Hrbacek pays close attention to her subject matter, focusing her eye and hand on the particularities of her theme, in which human particulars interact with the trees. But she never yields to the sentimentality of an easy lyricism; instead, the poetic nature of her work is eclectic and hard earned. For example, in Close Call (1999), two slim trunks, set closely to each other, are darkly outlined and given rounded knots as they expand into smaller groups of branches at the top of the composition. Protuberances and edges of the tree are lined with darker concentrations of tone, emphasizing the particularities of each tree addressed. One need not be a tree-hugger to deeply appreciate the devotion of the artist’s details. In many of the charcoal drawings, close observation establishes a reality that is rooted in nature–the human underpinnings of the works take a secondary place. Still, the artist is determined to bring into play her reading of the trees as human presences, identifying the wood as capable of delivering the attributes of a person.
I have emphasized the black-and-white charcoal works, but the colored efforts are equally accomplished. In Enclosed Torso (2016), for example, a single broad trunk, its surface embellished with layers and outgrowths in tan and, at the bottom, deep brown, is set up against a very simple schematic image of a house–its sides and triangular roof, drawn in simple white stripes, are visible alone. The nearly cancerous protuberances of the tree in its middle do not make it easy to study, but maybe that is the point; only once we have experienced nature not at its most idealistic but at its most evident will we have a true understanding of its (sometimes troubled) complexities. Despite the sweeping generalizations of the Hudson River School, we cannot yield to a view of the outside world as entirely inspired; a certain darkness inhabits nature just as it inhabits people. This means that Hrbacek’s art is that much more inspired for what we must call its realism, without which the forest would be just another pretty face. Instead, the beauty of the show lies in its unflinching realism, in which scars and imagistic anguish occurs on the surface of the trees, which most of us would want to find unblemished. Sadly, this is not true, but when was nature perfect? It seems that Hrbacek has found a moral lesson in the midst of her attempt to truly render trees as generative of both the (human) body and, likely more important, the (ethical) qualities of nature.