Joan Backes – How the Artist Looks at Trees
The link between art and nature is strong and enduring. Since humanity was 8irst 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
...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
speci8ically 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.
1 Joan Backes Letter to Giles Sutherland, April 4, 2010
These carpets therefore are possessed of both a speci8icity and a universality – they celebrate the local while
af8irming 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
Where should we place Backes’ unadorned ‘objective’ painting of bark and her in8initely 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 in8inite 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 identi8ication 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 scienti8ic 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.”2
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 a8ield. 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 8irst 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, shape, species, size?
2 Joan Backes, op. cit.
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 is ‐ 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 8ields 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.”3
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 8lowers. 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.
© GILES SUTHERLAND 2010