Artist Jody Guralnick finds plantlife ‘On the Brink’
Solo exhibition at Skye Gallery runs through Sept. 28
Coming off her high-profile “Prima Lingua” solo exhibition at the Denver Botanic Gardens early this year, the Aspen artist Jody Guralnick was focused on making new artwork that would reflect on the climate crisis.
The artist, whose signature works are abstracts that use patterns found in fungi and her beloved lichen, entered an early summer residency at RedLine Contemporary Art Center with aims of making paintings depicting a world and society “on the brink.”
What she found during the residency surprised her. The unexpected results of her time at Redline is the solo exhibition “On the Brink,” on view at Skye Gallery through Sept. 28, which includes new work and pieces that hung in the Botanic Gardens show and continues her career-long artistic inquiry into the natural world.
During the residency, Guralnick could not ignore the street encampments that have proliferated around Denver and the RiNo neighborhood where she was staying. Literally stepping over people on sidewalks as the early summer heatwave kept temperatures around 100 degrees, Guralnick found she could not keep herself in a creative bubble.
“It was so intense, and I kept thinking, ‘How do I reconcile that I’m in this nice condo, walking into this air conditioning,’” she recalled recently at the Skye Gallery.
In keeping with her aesthetic and botanical interests, plants became her way into addressing the needs of the unhoused and the wider ills of our society.
“I started studying the plants where the tent camps were,” she explained. “They were all on these sidewalks that were bursting with green life. It really caught my attention.”
Guralnick focused the month-long residency studying and researching what was growing among the unhoused people in sidewalk cracks, under tents and sleeping bags and cardboard boxes. The most prolific of them, she found, were mulleins, opium lettuce and lamb’s quarters.
The abundance of these specific plants amid this population with little or no resources was profound to Guralnick. Mullein and lamb’s quarters, for example, are used to treat the respiratory issues that have sent so many to hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. Opium lettuce, as the name suggests, contains a milky sap that can serve as a natural painkiller. Observing people with drug addictions on the streets, Guralnick wondered if they’d be better off seeking relief in this sidewalk crack lettuce.
Her research also found Ethiopian lettuce and other plants that could feed and treat those in the encampments. She started painting them and exploring them in intricate hand-painted patterns on rich new canvases, overwhelming large-format diptychs and tritpychs and smaller-scale plant studies, much like she’s previously explored lichen and plantlife found in wild stretches of Independence Pass, the Fryingpan Valley and the untamed riparian slope between her home and Castle Creek.
The street plants were un-watered and uncared for, she noted, but growing nonetheless and offering a solution that nobody is seeing.
“What struck me is that these plants that were all over the sidewalks, with people camping all over them, are edible and medicinal and so important,” Guralnick explained. “There is something we are getting so profoundly and deeply wrong. I kept thinking about how we’re missing a message that’s coming in loud and clear.”
Mineral deposits from cars and human waste has likely infected many of the plants and made them inedible, but still, Guralnick found, there was a disturbing disconnect between the plant and human life in the neighborhood.
“I felt like I was getting this message, like, ‘Look, we are successfully growing here. Who are these people unsuccessfully growing here?’”
Instead of embracing the plants to help the homeless population, or even planting trees, the city, she noted, has put barriers and boulders in place to discourage people from sleeping or living in these public space.
“We have these plants saying to us, ‘I can successfully feed you and make your city less hot,’” she said. “And we’re not listening.”
Along with the new paintings and the Denver Botanic Gardens pieces, “On the Brink” includes statues and books covered in porcelain plantlife.
The paintings force you to see the world around you anew — whether it’s the miraculous pattern of lichen you might otherwise ignore on a trailside rock or the diverse plantlife sprouting from a sun-drenched sidewalk crack — and include aesthetic surprises like a trail of algae undulating across a panel looking like a string of black pearls, or a coral explosion of mushrooms, or pollen in microscopic close-up (which looks very much like the now-familiar red-spiked balls of coronavirus).
The works are a subtle call to action. One titled “Canary in the Coal Mine,” for example, depicts high country lichen that are thousands of years old but shrinking due to atmospheric changes and acidity brought on by climate change.
These life forms, Guralnick argues, have a lot to say if we’re willing to listen. As the artist put it: “I’m really interested in the voices of the non-human participants.”
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The Aspen Winter Words series will host four in-person author talks at Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen and two online-only events.