Stella Cretek

A Poem As Lovely As A Tree

By - Nov 20th, 2008 02:52 pm
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The economic crash has hit the world big time, and the world of art is no exception.


I found quite a bit of comfort at Dean Jensen Gallery where Joan Backes’ work is on display until November 22. Stroll to the back of the long narrow space and stand in front of her video, “Oak Tree, One Year (2008).” It’s eleven minutes of heaven, as if you were on her property in Massachusetts observing the seasonal changes of a magnificent oak The oak is the state tree of Iowa from whence I hail and there are far fewer now than when I was a kid and sat beneath their leafy confines. For $1,000 the eleven minutes could be mine to take home, just in case the dreaded wilt wipes away the last of the greats. This filmmaking is art at its finest. It marks time, puts the world in perspective, and for delicious moments, made this viewer forget all else.

If you are a “tree hugger type,” don’t go to the gallery with expectations of great and grand environmental statements. Her work is subtle; it suggests rather than insists. A trio of trees from 2008 (each referencing New England), are painted on panels, but they are slices of trunks, minutely detailed, and up close the details become wonderful miniature landscapes. Rising 8’ skyward and varying in width, they define the gallery’s entrance and introduce further depictions of trees, including one from this state, “Tree, Wisconsin (2004).” Fifteen photographs make it clear that Backes is multi-talented and determined to explore trees in all their glory. The concept is anything but ordinary.


Paper, the by-product of trees, carries her point home, or rather to the “Newspaper House,” a cube for entering. Constructed of diverse folded squares of global newspapers, it is the center piece of the exhibition and is an inside/outside experience, every child-adult’s dream of a magical place perfect for the ultimate escape. I found myself reading the snippets of folded squares (obsessively) plastering the exterior: “the stock market took a beating last week,” “stand-up comedy in America is not, for the most part….,” and (gruesomely), “the deeper sores may have…” The house wears a skin of words (too many to absorb), but inside the sanctum waits another world of tiny dioramas, not unlike those in natural history museums. ”Elm” (light, vellum, laser and hand cut paper 2008), memorializes the elms that were struck down by disease in the 50s & 60s, not only in Milwaukee, but across our nation. They’ve all disappeared in my hometown, but I remember those lofty citadels that shaded our streets, sheltered the birds, and gave substance to each and every day. When they died, time didn’t stop, but it sure did change.

The leaves will be gone or clogging our gutters when Jensen Gallery launches their answer to the economic downturn. “Big, Big Bangs/Small, Small Bucks” opens December 5 thru January 24 in the year 2009. Nothing will be priced over $750, and (at this writing), lower than $200. No, it’s not a Milwaukee style rummage sale. Artists from here (for example, Nick Frank and numerous other Wisconsin-based talents), will join with global “almost greats,” one-hundred strong, in an attempt to stanch the flow of bad karma in a shredded economy. Bad karma aside, in many ways their rallying round, speaks of an ongoing respect for Dean Jensen who for so many years has supported so many artists. And he’s done it with style and grace. This event will be no exception.

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