Despite the ungainly title Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought an Exhibition and The Dorothy Saxe Invitational, the concept uniting the artworks on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum is easy to grasp. The borrowed and commissioned works of art presented under this banner thematize trees and celebrate the Jewish holiday Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for the Trees. The artists engage with trees, both as tropes for regeneration and as omens of destruction.
The experience unfolds in three interlocking arenas. First, there’s a curated exhibition of 20 art works–strong pieces that demand and hold the gallery space they are accorded. Quite a few of these are photo-based pieces, at least one historically noteworthy: photo documentation of Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks, an environmentalist project from the 1980s, which involved planting thousands of trees in Kassel, Germany. This piece was a starting point for the curator, Dara Solomon, who saw the Beuys project as “an anchor for work that actually involves the planting of real trees for the benefit of community and urban renewal. I was also
drawn to the similarity between the iconic image of Beuys planting trees surrounded by the Kassel community with the images of early pioneers planting trees in Israel, “ Solomon explained. “I grew up with those early Zionist photographs and it’s interesting to think of Beuys’ action in relation to those.”
Branching out from Beuys’ 7000 Oaks, Solomon researched artists for whom the iconography of the tree is central, such as Zadok Ben David, Robert Wiens, Gabriela Albergaria, and Yuken Teruya. “These artists, although they pursue other subjects, continuously explore the subject of the tree at various scales, media, and with various messages, sometimes environmental and other times more personal,” Solomon writes. Zadok Ben-David’s Black Field, a forest of 5,000 miniature trees fashioned with lace-like precision out of sheet metal, occupies a circular field of white sand. On the approach, the trees cut stark black figures against the white ground. But when the viewer circles to the opposite side and looks back, the trees come to life, rife with riotous color.
Robert Wiens crafted his nearby sculpture, Log, out of scraps of recycled wood, carved and painted to create an effigy of a felled tree trunk. Gabriela Albergaria, also mourning felled trees, used bolts, wire, and thread-bound splints to splice back together limbs severed from trees by the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks. Yuken Teruya’s Notice — Forest, part of a series of paper trees placed inside disposable brand-name shopping bags, demonstrates how consumption menaces our forests. Another piece that stood out for me, Marcel Odenback’s monumental collage You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees, recreates an impenetrable thicket of birch trees from printed matter.
This veritable arboretum of borrowed art works opens onto to an array of commissioned works, in the second section of the exhibition, created specifically for the occasion. Here’s where the “Dorothy Saxe Invitational” part of the exhibition’s kicks in. The Invitational (the seventh in the museum’s history) enables artists from diverse backgrounds, working in every medium and every part of the country, to reflect on Jewish rituals, holidays, and objects. This year, responding to the New Year for the Trees, each participating artist incorporated reclaimed wood into their work. San Francisco designer Yves Behar used a piece of driftwood he found on the beach at Bolinas to craft the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph. Behar’s Alef of Life suggests we rethink our priorities, putting nature first. Lisa Kokin created Fauxliage: No Birds Sing–a bough with leaves fashioned from pages cut out of Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring. Carson’s 1962 book, an exposé detailing the impact of DDT and other chemical pollutants on the environment, is widely viewed as kilometer zero of the ecology movement in the U.S.
Terry Berlier used wood harvested from Recology (better known as “the dump”) to recreate the ringed cross-section of a tree. Gail Wight’s Forests in the Age of Fishes also represents the cross-section of a tree—this one from the Devonian era, when fish first achieved substantial diversity and the first forests covered the planet. Wight scorched the fossil-like pattern on handmade paper whose ingredients include pine shavings. Some of the oldest living trees on earth belong to this phylum. Tucker Nichols cobbled together a towering form out of wooden museum props scavenged on site in a doomed effort to restore the material to its original format, a tree.
Not all the works in the Dorothy Saxe Invitational area are displayed to their advantage. A long row of wall-mounted display cases presents groupings that seem determined more by size than any more compelling logic. Berlier’s piece, for instance, is at odds with Deborah Lozier’s more delicate Hand me Down, a bricolage table setting formed of twigs spliced together with elements of sterling silver utensils.
Plexiglass cases and low pedestals of various shapes and sizes create navigational obstacles throughout the show’s galleries without always bringing the artworks for which they were created into focus. The exhibition’s relatively dense display sometimes makes it hard to isolate works visually and appreciate their individual qualities. This said, there’s an upside to this promiscuity: the overall effect–and one that is surely desired—is one of tremendous creative and cultural diversity. This is what Jewish thought about trees, and their life cycleslooks like through the eyes of 50 prominent contemporary artists.
Exiting the Dorothy Saxe Invitational, the visitor traverses an educational area where the place of the tree in Jewish tradition and culture is fully elaborated. This “green space” exemplifies CJM’s creative use of color and design elements, combined with text and images, to convey information and stimulate thought.
One quirky aspect of the Dorothy Saxe Invitational: All of the commissioned works may be purchased. Sale transactions were conducted at the opening gala, with the remaining works available for purchase online, or via the gift shop, throughout the run of the exhibition. The museum splits the proceeds 50/50 with the artists. Since CJM holds no permanent collections, this sale solves the problem of what to do with works commissioned by the museum once the show comes down. At the same time, the fundraising gambit benefits both the museum and the contributing artists. At first, the blurring of boundaries between museum and gallery troubled me. But given the prominence gift shops have achieved within most art institutions, why be fussy about this particular step toward commercialism?
The third component of Do Not Destroy takes place outside the museum’s front doors. CJM invited Rebar, an environmental design collective known for reconfiguring urban spaces in eco-conscious ways, to create an experimental landscape, Nomadic Grove, on Jessie Square. Rebar’s statement about the project aligns closely with the ethos of Tu B’Shevat: “We believe that the human environment—public space in particular—should be infused with ecological knowledge, resilient to changing social conditions, responsive to creative impulses, and filled with opportunities for benevolence, conviviality, and delight.
We design to make that happen.” Fashioned out of recycled lumber, Rebar’s modular, moveable planters provide seating and islands of green on the concrete plaza. They offer a temporary home to saplings of species native to both the Bay Area and Israel, live oaks and olive trees. Here, Yoko Ono’s concept of the Wish Tree inspires visitors to compose wishes and attach them to the tree branches.
The works featured in this tripartite exhibition lend themselves to at least as many readings as there are contributing artists, but the show’s message about trees is clear: Do not destroy. Or, if you do, re-use.
–TIRZA TRUE LATIMER
“Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought and The Dorothy Saxe Invitational” through May 28 and “Nomadic Grove” in Jessie Square through Oct. 2 @ the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
About the author:
Tirza True Latimer is Chair of the Graduate Program in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts, San Francisco.