Forest, Farm, Field, the current exhibit at Chelsea’s River Gallery, presents the natural world as we would like it to be: shimmery green and mild, a generous offering of benign plants, pretty wildflowers, and ripe vegetables. The pink umbel of a six-foot-tall textile milkweed (genus Asclepius, an herbaceous perennial found in fields and meadows and named by Linnaeus after the Greek god of healing, for the plant’s medicinal uses) shivers in a breeze. Never mind that it’s the air-conditioning.
The exhibit juxtaposes the nature-inspired works of two U-M art MFA graduates, Ashley Lieber, ’10, and Susan Moran, ’83. Moran has contributed many large, colorful textiles, including the above Milkweed I. The soft beauty of her textiles comes from her combination of airy fabrics—silk, linen, and cotton—and dappled dye effects. Moran specializes in the art of shibori, a traditional Japanese dye technique (known lamely to many of us as “tie-dye”) that, according to Moran, “results in richly evocative surfaces that seem akin to certain natural phenomena.” The result in Milkweed I is the illusion of light and shade on a leaf, or differences in chlorophyll. Moran is perceptive of both nature’s inclination and our attraction toward the wonders of variation.
Lieber also explicitly recognizes the emotional benefits of a rich landscape in her Moss for Meditation Series. Each collage of preserved mosses and lichens resembles a few square feet of the Pacific Northwest’s plushest forest floor, framed and hanging on a gallery wall. These artworks, says Lieber, “can be utilized as actual sites for mental and physical restoration,” through care (regular mistings by the owner) and interactions with them. In addition to their enchanting visual appeal, they give off a whiff of sweet earthiness, but their most alluring quality is their springy-looking texture and density. As I encountered these pieces, the resultant frame-of-mind wasn’t so much calm and meditative as it was pleasantly frustrated—these are very, very tempting to touch (I resisted!).
Now to move on to the third realm of this exhibit, the farm. Both Lieber and Moran’s artwork reflect the contemporary green trend that has boosted the popularity of the fruits and methods of local organic farming and gardening. Several of Moran’s textiles were inspired by her visits to the Community Farm of Ann Arbor. Moran’s cornucopia includes a collection of antique linens silkscreen-printed with carrots, beets, and kale leaves. These, however, were the least satisfying of Moran’s work; the brightly colored, detailed prints of vegetables clashed with the formal simplicity of the monogrammed cloth napkins.
Lieber shows off her green green thumb in two installation pieces—Garden Table I (Tableau) and Garden on Wheels, both of which sprout leafy edibles that the River Gallery staff will harvest for salads. As nature-inspired art, these installations resemble anybody’s organic raised-bed garden, the difference being that these gardens aim to nourish and sustain the mind as well as the body.
There will be an artist talk at the gallery at 2 p.m. on Sat., August 18. The exhibit runs through August 25.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the August 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. The artist talk was added and the exhibit dates extended.