Joan Backes – How the Artist Looks at Trees

January 2010

Joan Backes – How the Artist Looks at Trees

The link between art and nature is  strong and enduring.  Since humanity was first motivated by a mimetic impulse  borne out of wonderment and fascination, the urge to record, to comment upon,  and in some way to participate in nature has been unstoppable.

The history of the tree as metaphor, symbol, subject and object  has been a long one in art-historical terms. Joan Backes, who has worked closely with natural subject matter for many years, has concentrated on the tree for the last decade. For Backes, the tree is both metaphor and actuality, symbol and object. The tree – a source of so much of the physical fabric of our built environment – is also a vast repository of human association where myth, metaphor, art and symbol collide and intertwine.

It would be a skewed reading of Backes’ work to see it as solely or primarily ‘eco’ or ‘environmental’ art, caught up with the pressing concerns of deforestation and global environmental Armageddon which, we are continually told, seems to be nigh.  Such an interpretation would be a facile but perhaps inevitable reading, given the times we live in.

These are issues which Backes understands well, as her participation in the 2008 exhibition  ‘Nature Interrupted,’ at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York,  so amply demonstrated. Here, Backes exhibited one of her increasingly well-known  Carpet of Leaves (measuring 19′ x 6 1/2′ ) consisting of over one thousand leaves representing many species and seasons.  The leaves were laminated in an acrylic seal and each was placed individually as part of an intricate pattern on the gallery floor.  

Joan Backes, Tree, Edinburgh, 2010

Backes’ art is essentially celebratory, not despairing.  Thus, it is set apart from so much earnest but rather single minded ‘issue’ art which has become all too common in recent years. Not long ago, Backes exhibited a related work Carpet of Leaves, 2010 at Sleeper Gallery in Edinburgh. Discussing these carpet works, Backes states

…when I began making them I wanted to bring the outside in to the Gallery.  I thought about how we have made indoor carpets with motifs from leaves to decorate their surfaces.  I wondered how it would work to bring the leaves directly into the gallery and to make an arranged carpet – as we humans try to organize gardens and nature outdoors.  But in this case I would use the real leaves from nature.  

Each Carpet is different.  I spend a lot of time planning the best arrangement and dimensions specifically for each site.  Some have been oval, some round, others rectangular and some very long rectangles.  For each Carpet I add leaves from the place where it is exhibited.  So every Carpet holds leaves from every past site as well as ones from its current site.  The Sleeper Carpet  features leaves from Scotland in its center around which is a distinct ring of dark oval leaves from Massachusetts where I currently live.  So the Carpets have background stories if people wish to learn about them.

These carpets therefore are possessed of both a specificity and a universality – they celebrate the local while affirming the universal.  They are also a way of arresting time — of preserving the leaves in a perpetual Autumnal state, and as Backes says, ‘bringing the outside in’.

Backes’ works are sometimes simultaneously symbolic and non-symbolic; often, they can be read in multiple ways. Another work which Backes showed at Sleeper, Tree, Edinburgh, 2010 is a detailed study in acrylic of the bark of a tree. Like Carpet of Leaves, 2010 this painting captures a certain genus loci while extending outwards in relevance and meaning. The image is both objective and subjective in that it records impassively – like a taxonomic process – while also being suggestive  in the way that, say, a botanical illustration could never be.

Where should we place Backes’ unadorned ‘objective’ painting of bark and her infinitely more decorative and colourful leaf carpet ?   Tree, Edinburgh, 2010 is part of an interlocking tradition in western art which can be traced at least as far back as Dürer’s Das grosse Rasenstück (1503).  The selectivity and focus which Backes applies to her bark study is no less intense than Dürer’s choice of an apparently mundane subject which, as we now appreciate, contains infinite wonders.  

Albrecht Dürer, Das grosse Rasenstück (1503)

As anyone with more than a passing interest in trees will be aware, Backes has actually painted the bark of a Scots Pine (pinus sylvestris). That this identification is so readily made is a testament to Backes’ skill and dedication —but why not name the work ‘Scots Pine, Edinburgh’, or even ‘Pinus sylvestris Edinburgensis MMX’ ?  Instead, Backes has chosen an apparently ‘neutral’ nomenclature which simultaneously rejects an accepted scientific methodology. Backes herself points to this ambiguity when she explains “I wanted to explore the possibilities of making a painting to read abstractly when viewed close-up while the painting would also represent something when viewed from a distance.”  Could the viewing process — the way in which we look at such a work — itself be seen as a metaphor?  The common catchphrase ‘He couldn’t see the wood for the trees’ comes to mind in this context. In other words, too much intense focus on the detail of things prevents us seeing the larger picture.  Backes offers both possibilities to the exclusion of neither.

Like Backes’ tree paintings, her  Carpet of Leaves use and celebrate local material and mix it with material from further afield. The patterning inherent within the carpet can be read as a kind of narrative – not necessarily a logical or sequential one.  The narrative leads the eye which seeks and requires sense, order and patterning. We are lead down an avenue of similarly coloured leaves, or a cluster of species, or a linked assortment of shapes….Each viewer will formulate a unique reading.  My own reaction was one of surprise and delight, for this was the first time I had encountered Backes’ work. I set about trying to decode the work at my feet. What were the species of trees from which the leaves came? How had the artist ordered them? By colour? By shape? By species? By size?

Joan Backes, Carpet of Leaves, 2010

Does the meaning of this work — and other similar pieces by Backes — extend beyond the surface appearance? Should the carpet be seen as a metaphor for something else? Or should it be celebrated and enjoyed for what it i – a collection of ordered shapes and patterning; a joyful celebration of nature? Perhaps we should incline towards the latter view, remembering the words of Gertrude Stein who famously said:  “A rose is a rose is a rose.” A  metaphorical reading, although not impossible, is not necessary. It is certain that in creating these works Backes brought to bear her own personal associations of making. But these are unknown; it is the viewer’s experience which is important in this respect.

Discussing ways of reading Backes’ work, Jonathan Goodman (critic, Art in America) has observed

“While the paintings make no overtly political claims…Backes has found a way of painting non-objectively, as well as referencing the actuality of nature, her double set of meanings do not suggest a dichotomy so much as a union in which one way of seeing is equivalent to, and perhaps identical with, the other…Backes’ strengths as a painter are wonderfully exacting in her renditions of trees; her examples do not appropriate but rather incorporate a visual complexity operative in several fields of the imagination at once. We may well read her interpretations as evidence of the worthwhile desire to identify and preserve, as well as seduce, the eye.”

Explicitly, through her work, Backes not only celebrates nature and shares with us her joy and appreciation of it,  she also implicitly resurrects the notion of beauty.  Through the selection of many species of colourful leaves in her Carpets, to her painted recordings of the bark of trees from numerous geographical locations, we are offered the beauty and pleasures of the natural world worth preserving.  Backes’ work shares an outlook with many artists of stature and takes her place in a long and distinguished tradition, one which begins with Dürer but can also be found in the work of Van Gogh and Matisse, as well as the more recent American painters Cy Twombly and Joan Mitchell. These artists used the vivid colour of nature, often focusing on trees, leaves and flowers. They have done with their work what Backes does with paint and with raw material. Backes‘ work lifts the viewer toward a sense of delight  through its celebration of nature. 


Joan Backes Paper House 2007.jpg

Joan Backes Cardboard House 2008.jpg