You pass by them each day, a world replete with these silent sentinels, looming and swaying in breezes high overhead. They cleanse our air, shade our backyards, grace our hillsides, and even sacrifice themselves to set our campfires aglow, or frame a roof over our heads. Trees are a ubiquitous part of our lives in all but the most barren or harshly urbanized parts of our lives. Their beauty and utility go largely unheralded, unless you take the time to explore the wonder of both their form and function in our everyday existence. One artist in particular has taken the time to carefully examine this deeply-rooted, but often ignored feature of our landscape—dramatically expressive living organisms that overspread approximately 9.6 billion acres or 30% of the world’s land surface—trees.
In recent years, New York artist, Mary Hrbacek, has garnered enthusiastic attention for her dedicated work, with numerous shows, such as New York’s Gallery d’Arte, Mana Contemporary (New Jersey), 107 West, Creon Gallery (four shows), Tenri Institute, among others, as well as international shows and awards in China, South Korea and Greece. There, reviews by internationally-known critic, Edward Rubin, writes of her paintings: “Hrbacek cultivates eerie hybrid plant forms as they emerge through the drawing process, coaxing these unfathomable figural apparitions into coherent energized human-like entities that disclose the organic origins of all natural systems. The works stress our primal link to nature in an increasingly high tech global existence” (People’s Choice, 2013). In 2012, NYC Magazine wrote: “Hrbacek’s work presents a pensive look at questions and situations that have reappearing in the telling of man’s history since the days of cavemen. Through these nameless and faceless subjects, we learn more about ourselves.”
Right: Hanging Suspended (2008) Acrylic on Linen, 42 x 46″
Though usually soft-spoken, Hrbacek becomes more animated when discussing her work as an artist. A painter since childhood, she has devoted years to becoming a keen chronicler of the message and metaphorical power that any given tangle of trunk and branches arching over the walkway of our otherwise uneventful lives can offer us. She has honed her careful observational skills of bark and bough, crux and crown, instilling in their unique sculptural configuration powerful messages about human emotions, feminine empowerment, relationships gained and lost and our tenuous place in a nature’s fragile, threatened world order.
Left: Facing Front (2008/14) Acrylic on Linen, 38 x 44″
As if to heighten these motifs, Hrbacek’s singular tree forms stand alone on the canvas against a largely flat, ‘sky’ background; but one that is nevertheless “activated” by the interplay between positive and negative space. Her carefully crafted arboreal biographs are based on scrupulous observation of any given, living object. Her compositional style is aimed at maximizing the narrative between tree-form and viewer—as if to say: ‘I stand here with a lesson for you, without embellishment or distraction, shaped over years, honed by wind and rain, blight and sun. Are you listening?’ The power in her image-making resides in the silent dialogue that might result from the interaction between painted surface and the mindful observer. The inherent invitation in the artist’s work is extended to the world, moving from the gallery to the street; there to engage that same wisdom found in the ancient maple, or towering sycamore standing on the corner of Oak and Elm Streets.
Right: Entwined (2005) Charcoal on Paper, 22 x 30″
Hrbacek makes it clear in her rendering of these objects that realism is not her goal. “I study form, and forms-within-forms, to try and establish what’s going on. I look carefully at how light interplays on surface layers and between boughs and branches. My subjects are abstracted, but still appear as though they can exist in the physical world. If I’m successful, shapes and format appear to come to life—they’re activated—and therein is the strength in the work and, hopefully, my message in the piece.”
During her years in training, Hrbacek has focused on life drawing. “I had worked as a teacher for several years, and by the time I got to art school, I found that particular structure was not what I needed. I became self-motivated, both in terms of materials, but also subject matter. Life-drawing seemed to me the basis for everything else I would need as an artist. So I focused on that—for many hours a day, as a result.” That perspective on form and function served her well, particularly in New York City where she has lived for many years. Her pursuit of subject matter took her to Riverside Park, where she discovered a number of trees, deeply gnarled by years of growth in an adverse urban environment. She was struck by how the features of these trees took on the anthropomorphic features of faces and limbs (some broken, with sap oozing), certain male and female characteristics and postures of limb and trunk that belied their vulnerability as they struggled to survive city life. Much like each of us, she noticed that each tree had its own survival response: some canted at an angle from years of erosion or wind; others stunted as if to hunker down against adversity; others reaching skyward to gather as much sunlight as possible in an otherwise crowded copse. “This was a mystical moment for me,” she explains. “From then on, I began to look up to find subject matter I believed was worth studying.”
Left: Woman Withheld (2011) Acrylic on Canvas, 30 x 38″
“I experimented with different mediums—inks, natural materials, oils—but they weren’t really ‘me.’ For a while, I worked with gouache on canvas, using trees in Central Park as my field study site. My medium of choice eventually became acrylic paint. The fact that I could extend drying time, control color and light effects became something I could absolutely understand and manage.” Hrbacek’s control of the medium allows her to subtly manipulate her subject matter to shape the narrative. Their vulnerability—again, a reflection on the human condition—very much evident in the forms captured on canvas. “When I travel, I document with my camera the unique features and traits of trees in those places. For example, in Italy, I once saw 400-year old trees, projecting an iconic, powerful presence. Some years later, I returned to find their tops had been chopped off. Like their human counter-parts, these forms remain vulnerable to time and the forces of human ambition. They remain vulnerable, in spite of their supposed ability to survive.
Right: Message Received (2016) Acrylic on Linen, 36 x 46″
I’ve photographed trees in Russia, Czechoslovakia and China. I’ve painted a series based on trees in Greece and bonsais in Washington. Throughout the world, the story remains remarkably consistent: trees are not isolated from the world and people around them; they express the same vulnerabilities, emotions and frailties as the rest of us. For example, both they and we are being affected by climate change. We share that vulnerability. In a review of Hrbacek’s work at Creon Gallery, critic Jonathan Goodman wrote, “We are now at a time when our relationship with nature is close to disastrous, so [she] is brave to return to themes of nature that sustain our interest and, hopefully, do something about the ecological state of the planet. The urgency to act is not specific to the paintings or drawings, but Hrbacek’s care in detailing trees amounts to a call for change…So the graceful paintings encountered in this show tend to politicize their audience by implication—perhaps a better strategy for change” (Art International, Spring/Summer, 2015).
Left: The Wanderer (2012) Acrylic on Linen, 72 x 108″ (6 x 9′)
“When I consider my subject,” Hrbacek says, “I project those same human characteristics—whether anatomical elements, human emotions like anger or sexuality, or personality traits like steadfastness or optimism, into the bark and roots. Over the years, I have come to a point in my work where I feel freed up to find and express those messages. I am a gestural painter and my work reflects an emotional truth. I’m believe I’m being true to myself and my subject through my work.”
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor