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Strange Root 

An artist using plants as his medium reminds us that nature is its own boss

Wednesday, Jun 28 2006
Francis Baker's artworks are topiaries in reverse. While shrub sculptors trim bushes to resemble swans and bunnies, Baker coaxes plant roots into eerie versions of familiar forms — a Barbie, a Buddha, an outstretched hand. His is an additive rather than subtractive process: He makes a mold of an everyday object, pots a plant in it, and lets nature do its thing. It can take years (the current series took five) for the sequoia, peace lily, or china doll plant's roots to take on the shape of the mold, but when Baker finally frees the roots from their containers, the resulting mass of gnarled and twisted tendrils preternaturally maintains its intended outline. His photographs of these root sculptures are beautiful and creepy. A collaboration between the artist's eye and nature's primal impulse to grow, they're simultaneously earthy and otherworldly.

The images of figures and body parts are the most striking, if only because they remind us of corpses and burial. The show's centerpiece, Containment — space, is a large, T-shaped diptych in which the top panel contains the branches and green leaves of a plant, and the bottom half reveals its Barbie doll-shaped roots. Although Barbie's improbable proportions are recognizable, the tangled roots that delineate her curves give her an odd animus — not artificial, but not fully human, either. While the tree's leaves are still green and pliant, the roots look brittle. They're the shadow of a body, suggesting that its energy has passed into the branches above. From decay springs new life, like the tree plantings that often mark graves.

In a less macabre reading, the tree-figure is also a dreamlike fusion of plant and person, or perhaps a plant pretending to be a person, like a story out of Greek mythology. There's an element of fantasy in Baker's work, a sense of wonder, even enchantment. It must be like seeing an image of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast: as if nature (or God) were trying very hard to tell us something. For example, Containment — emotion is a close-up of roots coiled into the shape of a fist, but the slimy whorls also suggest a beady pair of eyes and a twisted mouth — a half-formed, monstrous face, like a shrunken head or a dried apple doll.

These unexpected results are unfortunately few. Such are the vicissitudes of letting plants do the sculpting. For the most part, Baker's photographs are straight head-on shots against flat black backgrounds. A few images contain whimsical visual puns. The roots in Containment — ambition, for example, form a house atop vibrant green leaves that spread out like a hill or a front lawn beneath it. A pair of images called Containment — guidance each feature a root-angel at the end of a long green stalk that extends down from the angel's feet like a train or a wake. A couple of the photos are dramatically lit with harsh, colored lights, imparting a surreality that feels like overkill.

The exhibit also includes a selection of the plants themselves as well as pictures of the molds. The plants disappoint, because unlike the richly colored photographs, they're now desiccated, brown, and lifeless. The photographs of the molds look more like science experiments than aesthetic objects. While it's interesting to get more insight into Baker's process, these pieces are supporting documentation rather than works of art in their own right.

Then again, the lush photographs are also just another form of record keeping. Their real subject isn't the roots themselves or the shapes they describe, but a moment that exists only for a short time, when the plants, unearthed from their containers, are still alive. As if in recognition of this fact, Baker has also printed a series of images in sepia tones on translucent paper. Containment — ambition v2 is another image of the little house, but it now has a fragile, vintage feel, as if it's a photograph from some bygone era when tiny people lived in houses made of roots.

Baker's work is appealing because it plays on our fantasies of a friendly, accommodating nature that bows cheerfully to our will. Like topiary, there's something wondrous about these root sculptures, as if they were yanked from the earth fully formed. It feels like finding a face in the moon or the outline of a figure in the clouds; we're constantly, selfishly looking for reflections of ourselves in the natural world. By revealing his process, the artist reminds us that these objects are the result of years of careful planning and tending — they're not magical. Still, the photographs are seductive enough to make us wish they were.

About The Author

Sharon Mizota


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