Emilie Benes Brzezinski, Apotheosis, a Forest Reconstructed (detail), 1997-98. Wood, tallest piece is 16 ft. high.

Emilie Benes Brzezinski

Washington, D.C.

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Two remarkable installations honor the tree’s struggle against the vicissitudes of time and weather, highlighting Emilie Benes Brzezinski’s 10-year quest to penetrate and reveal the tree’s essential core. Using a chain saw chisel, and axe to create highly expressive gestures, she has perfected what she terms a “vertical wedge” and other minimal forms.

Apotheosis, a Forest Reconstructed (1991) is the first large grouping of these wedges. Forty-six massive trunks of oak, ash, box eldel maple, elm, catalpa, walnut, and cherry trees crowd the Corcoran’s Hemicycle Gallery, a vast Beaux-arts space with a skylight and parquet floors. The initial effect is breathtaking. Against the backdrop of ambient smells and natural light, narrow pathways invite the viewer to explore the trees’ joint rhythms and individual appearances. The trees’ tops seem to merge with the heavens. As in a forest, where some trees grow taller than others in search of light and survival, the trunks range from eleven to more than sixteen feet in height. Almost threatening in scale, it is their age that has deified them for Brzezinski.

Brzezinski’s artistic process centers on her choice of trees, which she finds at sawmills or in the woods. From start to finish, she considers the overall shape of the trunk and branches, noting any bends or stresses, shifts in grain, and other irregularities such as knots, insect damage, and prior human intervention. Once a tree is selected, she cuts two planes at right angles to each other, and blocks out the center to create a void, reversing our perception of the tree as round and full. While shaping it, she plays off of its acquired characteristics, keeping some as historic reminders and identifiers. The trunk is then turned upside down in a dazzling feat of balance. The process, for artist and viewer alike, becomes an ongoing journey of discovery, in which her sensibility constantly adjusts to the tree’s life force.

A variety of effects results. All of the wedges are limbless, and most of their surfaces are sleek (a few are gnarled). Cuts made with a chain saw follow the lines of growth downgrain. ln each case, a slice of the outer layer has been preserved to highlight the tree’s twists and turns. Occasional numbers and other markings evoke the sawmill. Some trees have been finished in broad swirls. Others are chiseled with rough gauges or hatched with fine lines. Several surfaces are charred; others are veiled in gray, blue, and
green washes. ln addition to the tree’s own variegated palette, the added coloration, while subtle, is
equally diverse.

Whereas Apotheosis features a vertical thrust, Vortex (1997) exploits a horizontal orientation. Five giant oaks have been chosen because of the splaying of their upper branches, a rare occurrence in nature. This broadening allows Brzezinski to cut them crosswise and stand them on their sides, creating a bouncy, irregular arcade. Repeated crosscuts and vertical chips interact with the trees’ crossgrains and flat areas,
giving rise to a complex pattern that reflects the trees’ development, Though the similarly shaped trunks never actually touch, their swirling gesture starts at the left with the largest and most upright section and continues to the right with ever smaller sections that gradually taper downward.

Even more than Apotheosis, the composition in Vortex plays off its setting, in this case, a rotunda. The interlocking trunks repeat the curvature of the walls, creating an irresistible mass that draws in the viewer. Instead of a vacuum, however, a Neo-Classical marble sculpture of Venus (part of the Corcoran’s permanent collection) occupies the center. Her back to the trees, she seems coyly unaware of their presence. Only her turned head echoes their clockwise rhythm. While both goddess and trees are “nude,” her cold white smoothness counterpoints the warm red roughness of the oaks. The contrast between the two aesthetics is both clever and startling, conjuring a multitude of images including that of a goddess ringed by raging tigers.

ln this century, Brzezinski shares an artistic tradition with Constantin Brancusi and Ursula von Rydingsvard, among others. While Brancusi remade the tree according to his vision of a distilled or essential geometry,
Brzezinski never loses sight Of the tree’s link to nature. Another important difference with Brancusi is the advent of the chain saw. Even when she uses the tool to create deep gauges or swirls, she brings out, rather than denies, a tree’s particular history. ln her attempt to give order to the flux and randomness in
nature, she probes the forces and power relationships that guide a tree’s development. ln addition to age as the bestower of transcendence, another kind of apotheosis occurs in her sculptures. They inspire sublimity not of raw nature but of a manipulated nature in which a human is the agent of deification. Born to Czech parents and raised in California, the work also pays homage to her native country’s sense of survival and enduring spirit.

–Sarah Tanguy