Installation view of “Forest of Dreams: Contemporary Tree Sculpture,” with (left to right): Roxy Paine, Untitled, 2012–17, stainless steel, 49.38 x 22.75 x 18 in.; and Caption, 2017, stainless steel, 63.5 x 33 x 29.5 in. Photo: Nic Sagodic, Courtesy Roxy Paine Studio

“Forest of Dreams: Contemporary Tree Sculpture”

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

Even before setting foot in “Forest of Dreams,” memories, real or invented, of what a tree or a forest can mean began to surface—a symbol of resilience and connectivity, a sylvan tapestry of textures, rhythms, and gestures, a place of contemplation and refuge, or maybe, danger. The exhibition’s thematic focus yielded myriad visual possibilities and approaches, with works by 15 international artists, many well known for treating the subject along with some surprises. Rather than a strict arrangement or an all-out sprawl, the show unfolded in four porous sections that encouraged cross-referencing. Metamorphosis and juxtaposition acted as catalysts throughout, jarring conventional thinking and stirring senses and emotions.

An otherworldly stillness haunted the exhibition’s fairytale beauty, as though the trees had been arrested at different moments of growth and decay. A quick scan drew the eye to an intimate side gallery, where a pair of works by Kim Cridler stretched along the walls. In Limb III (2023), red coral blossoms at the end of a severed branch portended future life, jagged steel veins and coral blood exposed with the grace and economy of Zen painting. By contrast, Robert Lobe’s Womb (2020), a silvery, swollen mass of hammered aluminum coated in black wax, evoked a life caught short and fossilized.

In the central gallery, an array of hybrids blurred the familiar and the fantastic while coaxing anatomical parallels between person and tree. A pair of bronze figurines from Louise Bourgeois’s “Topiary: The Art of Improving Nature” series set the mood. In one, a buxom trunk sprouted a leaf for a head, and in another, a cone topped an elongated, armless creature. Tom Czarnopys’s wild and hoary half-man, half-tree Pan (1985) embodied the flute-playing god of groves and woody glens. Hugh Hayden’s Armor (2014), a Burberry coat covered in cherry bark on a dress stand, had the Dadaist oddity of the leaf jacket worn by David Byrne in a portrait by Annie Leibovitz.

Roxy Paine headlined the single gallery with windows. Within this light-filled clearing, glimpses of the garden outside heightened the artifice of the sculptures inside. Paine’s uncanny grafts of stainless steel distilled the natural and the manmade into shiny, globular trees with thin barren branches dancing wildly to the wind of imagination. Exquisite in detail and finish, the works reified the potential of a flawed beauty. The human hand was even more apparent in Emilie Brzezinski’s Sprites (2010), as two supernatural beings, 94 inches in height, emerged from a split box elder, the curving halves of its swaying trunk nearly stripped of bark and carved into empty shells.

The show culminated with a crepuscular gallery. Even in this immersive lair of dreams and nightmares, a sense of pleasure prevailed. In Hugh Hayden’s Hangers (2018), a pair of spiky fir branches dangling like skeletons from a garment rack conjured a mad scientist’s experiment gone awry. Nick Cave’s pitch-black A·mal·gam (2021), featuring a tree-man cast in bronze and sheathed in floral toile, was all magic. With birds perched on branches at his shoulders, the seated figure acted as mediary and beacon of communal engagement. Phantasmal creatures seemed to inhabit crevices in Michele Oka Doner’s Hominid Relic I (2015), a gnarly growth suspended by a metal hook from a ceiling corner that straddled the ground of the opposite corner. Ai Weiwei’s Iron Root (2015) honored the final throes of a fallen giant. Finally, Jim Hodges’s Still (2019) embodied edgy ambivalence: the dark wooden crag asserted massive presence, while glittering cobwebs added light and motion to the uneven surfaces of its topography.

What to make of all these visceral shapeshifters? “Forest of Dreams” conjured an exhilarating experience that roamed freely through mythology, the surreal, and data, all the way to the current climate crisis. Going from tree to tree, differences in individual textures, metaphors, and rhythms emerged, as well as similarities in attributes and conditions. The exhibition encouraged viewers to tap into fleeting and familiar recollections and to develop their own stories. For me, the forest became a pluralistic vision that formed a waking dream to be carried outside and nurtured within. Beyond beauty, my principal takeaway was the gift of wonder.