April 2012  

Native, 2002, Danseuse Chinoise, 1997 by Anita Huffington

This long-term installation of artworks in Joy Pratt Markham Gallery brings together works by three artists —Eileen Neff, Andrea Packard, and Anita Huffington—for whom the study of nature is inseparable from the exploration of human experience. Like the music, theater, dance, and other performing art forms that we feature at Walton Arts Center, these art works inform our worldview and challenge our habits of seeing. Although varied in media, these photographs, collages, and sculptures share common expressive concerns. Rather than simply record or illustrate a particular place or form, each artist captures the interdependence of nature and human creativity. Through fusing multiple and sometimes contradictory viewpoints, these artists portray both nature and our imaginative response to it as endlessly dynamic and vital.

Huffington, Neff, and Packard portray a natural world full of mesmerizing contradictions. In Neff’s large-scale photograph, A Planet’s Encouragement, the deeply shadowed lower half of the picture sharply contrasts the upper half of the composition, which is alight with the radiance of late afternoon. The surreal contrast gives one the sensation of seeing the same place simultaneously through different lenses or at different times of day. What at first seems to be a pastoral image ultimately puzzles and proves to be as much a window on the imagination as on the natural world.

Huffington’s sculptures also spring from a fascination with the duality of nature and the human experience. In works such as Fertile, a figure appears to both emerge from and dissolve into the roughly textured bronze. Here, feminine voluptuousness and metamorphic capacity are inseparable from dissolution or decay. Huffington cast this figure from a found stone that suggested the fragment of a female nude. Like Neff and Packard, Huffington revels in discovering a fragment in nature that suggests both the particular and universal. As the artist writes “I always use what a stone gives me. In this case, a swelling belly, a deep navel, and beautiful encrustations on the back.”

Packard’s mixed media works also embrace paradoxes of nature, experience, and perception. Her relief-like collages incorporating varied papers, prints, and fabrics appear illusionistic at a distance, yet up close they give way to an abstract interplay of varied color, line and texture. Viewing works such as Refuge from a distance, the area of speckled white to the left of the shadowy house may suggest a luminous patch of sunlight. Viewed up close, such areas appear more opaque—physically thicker and more psychologically present than the house or trees in the foreground. Up close, one shifts from viewing the composition formally to exploring the associative resonance of the varied collage elements, from fragments of hand-woven wool, to swatches of designer upholstery, to denim. Such shifting identities and impressions within each composition reveal these landscapes to be journeys of perception—a fusion of interior and exterior worlds.

Whether viewing Huffington’s dynamic figures, Neff’s paradoxical landscapes, or Packard’s shifting perceptual realities, passing from the familiar to the unknown in nature unfolds over time and rewards close observation. All three artists portray worlds in which in we can better connect with ourselves by communing with nature.