Boled over: Big trees suggest stories

Emilie Brzezinski came to modern art by an unusual path. Hardly the bohemian loft dweller, Brzezinski inhabited instead the upper echelon of the Washington, D.C., social scene as the wife of an advisor to President Jimmy Carter. Somehow she survived the cocktail party scene with her artistic sensibilities intact. Some particularly recent examples are now on display as part of her exhibit, the obliquely titled New Directions.
Brzezinski’s choice of medium is just as unusual as her personal history. Since the mid-‘80s, the artist has chosen to work with felled trees. She manipulates her trees in a way loosely in keeping with the natural contours and textures of the tree while at the same time purposefully stylized– one or two degrees removed from a natural form. 
The really big work in the exhibit, “La Ronde,” will certainly impress visitors with its sheer size. Brzezinski has carved up the trunks of white oaks, some as long as 20 feet, and stacked them on end. Her chainsaw and axe have left them splayed open like a book or a hinge, and their ragged gouges and cuts make them look like a beginner’s course in dugout canoes. 
The gouges and cuts left in the surface of the wood appear as if the artist has modeled her aesthetic on the sorts of textures that occur naturally in trees– creases, rough edges, bends, and curves. However, the markings– a gentle slope of facets or deep, narrow gouges equally spaced and running up the inside of the trunk– are a little too regular and clean to be natural.
Other smaller works on display also use wood as raw material, though with these Brzezinski seems to be more interested in the suggestive capabilities of her work. Strips of wood, deep and dark, hang on the wall like strips of beef jerky (“Strokes”); desiccated strips of wood and wood fiber have been laid out on the floor like some sort of archaeological unearthing (“Dust to Dust”). 
“Ressurection” consists of wood fiber strips shaped remarkably like human bodies or body parts which hang rather ominously from steel wire at the back of the gallery space. With “La Ronde,” however, Brzezinski uses her lightest touch and creates her most distinctive work.
Much of what defines contemporary art, it sometimes seems, is finding unique materials with which to work. To Brzezinski’s credit, she has not only found in tree trunks a unique material with which to work, she has also bothered to learn a bit from it.
Adding another layer to the exhibit, UVA Professor and computer music composer Judith Shatlin has created a soundtrack which modifies itself based on movement within the gallery space.

At the University of Virginia Art Museum, Emilie Brzezinski’s “New Directions” runs through September 7. Also, Rodney Smith’s photography exhibit, “Reverie and Reality,”runs through August 10. Rugby Road. 924-3952.

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