Substance and Increase:

Gabriela Albergaria and Shinji Turner-Yamamoto

by Gregory Volk


Near the beginning of his great poem “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman ecstatically invokes a burgeoning world and our connection to it. “Urge and urge and urge,” he wrote, “always the procreant urge of the world…Always substance and increase…always a knit of identity.”  It’s especially worth recalling Whitman—a consummate urban New Yorker, yet one deeply sympathetic to and energized by nature—in our era, when such a “knit of identity” between us and the natural world seems profoundly frayed, and oftentimes nonexistent. In the 2016 presidential campaign there were three debates, moderated by esteemed journalists. Not one of these journalists asked the two candidates a single question about climate change, which is likely the most pressing issue facing us.  There were questions about energy, about how we can best use natural resources, but no recognition of how we are inextricably part of nature, and also how we are greatly contributing to dire upheaval in the natural world.  This lack of recognition, itself a form of blithe denial, continues the anthropocentric fantasy that we—quite recent additions to a planet more than four billion years old—are somehow above nature, or masters of nature. Increasingly, this fantasy looks perilous. It is therefore a very good idea to turn to artists who understand, with both intellect and feeling, our connection with nature; who comprehend our links to trees and fossils, wind and soil, and to cycles of growth and decay, and whose compelling works are born of a sustained engagement with the natural world. 

Substance and Increase brings together Gabriela Albergaria, a Portuguese artist living in London and Lisbon, and Shinji Turner-Yamamoto, a Japanese artist living in Ohio.  Both uncommonly utilize (and remake, and transform) natural substances, at times collected in far-flung locales, in hybrid works that are both found and made, natural and mediated—real nature-culture conflations. Both artists’ works are analytical and in some ways scientific; they are based on a serious study and observation of nature, while they also question the ideologies we project on, and the value we ascribe to, nature and its representations. Both artists’ works are also gorgeous, evocative, contemplative and quite often sublime. 

Trees, leaves, bark and soil are just a few of the materials that Gabriela Albergaria employs and references in sculptures, drawings, and text-based works that, responding to this Anthropocene age, thoroughly blend nature and the human. Three monochromatic carpets on the floor are coupled with accompanying colors and texts on the wall (Clay Earth Pigment, 2014). The wool carpets, handmade via a traditional Portuguese technique, were dyed with three natural pigments, ochre, sienna, and umber, derived from earth. Domestic objects for interior spaces are thus suffused with the outdoors. Numbers on the carpets refer to the color list of Faber-Castell color pencils, while the texts on the wall, looking like an outsize color chart at the hardware store, denote the actual composition of the dyes. A stack of lovely colored pencil on paper drawings references the colors of leaves that Albergaria collected in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and preserved over years (Tree leaves colors catalogue, collected from Brooklyn Botanic Garden in September 2010 and preserved until January 2014, 2010-2014).  This work rather hilariously suggests fabric swatches at a home decorating store. As they navigate between leaves and commercial products, earth and home décor, both of these pared-down works (Minimalism and its various offshoots are important influences for Albergaria) are also, if understated, vital visual forces.

Gardens and parks have long been favored sites for Albergaria, sites that are simultaneously natural and constructed, encoded with and governed by our shifting understanding of what nature is and means, and that have everything to do with nature’s impact on us and vice versa. On 11 panels arranged in an irregular row, Albergaria’s elongated, quietly stunning drawing in green pencil depicts two tall Sweet Gum trees, with their uppermost branches almost touching (The space between a Sweet Gum (E. USA) and another Sweet Gum (E. USA) at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2016-17). This work reveals one of Albergaria’s principal artistic strategies.  She fits organic growth—towering trunks, scraggly limbs reaching in multiple directions, a swirling canopy of leaves—into a multipart, geometric system, which is a distinctly human invention. This multipart drawing is enthralling, yet also unsteadying, even vertiginous. As you look directly at these two horizontal trees, you also feel you are on the ground looking far up at them, mesmerized by arboreal splendor overhead. There is something deeply compelling about this charged encounter between two trees inexorably reaching toward one another, while remaining separate and distinct. Albergaria’s exquisitely rendered botanical drawing (which hints at much smaller botanical studies by various 18th and 19th-century naturalists and explorers) evokes relationships and connections—between trees, individuals, separate locations, and ultimately between nature and us.

Albergaria’s related, yet very different, work in three parts presents truncated bottom sections of two trees and the ample space between them; this work is matter-of-factly titled Distance between a Liriodendron Tulipifera (USA) and a Sugar Maple (Canada) at Brooklyn Botanic Garden (2017). The left and right panels focus on stout trunks and spreading roots, while the middle panel depicts the space between these trees, the ground that separates them. Potent connotations abound, including cultural and political ones; Albergaria has invested a small section of the botanic garden with entirely new meaning and implications.  These two trees are close to one another, but still distant; one is native and the other is foreign. They share the same space, but uneasily so. Questions of what is native and what is an immigrant are suggested, indeed searing questions at a time, especially in the U.S. and Europe, when immigrants are increasingly seen not as foreigners to be welcomed but as intrusive threats. With Most of us are transplants uprooted from our native soil (2016-17), the handwritten words (in green pencil) in the title are presented on layers of paper that loosely resemble both tree bark and parchment. These words could well refer to the array of plants and trees in a botanic garden, some native and many foreign, but also, however obliquely, to us, as migratory humans. Some of the most stridently anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner politicians today, including the current U.S. president, had parents or grandparents who were immigrants, and in fact owe their very lives to immigration. It’s my educated guess that many of the most vociferous and impassioned proponents of building a wall on the long border between the U.S. and Mexico have little, if any, clue that California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, a big chunk of New Mexico, and some of Colorado were once part of Mexico after its independence from Spain in 1821, and before that were part of the Spanish Empire for more than two hundred years. Of course, relatively few people acknowledge that all of these places were Native American for centuries, meaning that settlers were, in fact, uprooted immigrants themselves. 

Among Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s chosen substances, incorporated into paintings, sculptures, wall works, and mini-sculptures, are fragments of West Virginia coal, ca. 450-million-year-old Ordovician fossils (a period when most of Earth north of the tropics was ocean, and most of the land was collected into the southern supercontinent Gondwana), growing crystals, quartz, wind, rain, flowing spring water, and ceramic or plaster archaeological or architectural shards. With their subtle earth tones and lovely striations, Turner-Yamamoto’s Sidereal Silence paintings are an idiosyncratic type of elemental and atmospheric abstraction, while they also hint at the earth’s surface, soil, rocks, and landscape. Composed outdoors in southwest Ireland, these aren’t landscape paintings at all but instead paintings made by and with the land and environment, and they include fossil dust, turf ash, tree resin, mica, rainwater, and nikawa glue (Japanese animal glue) on raw cotton canvas. Spare yet vibrant colors (brown, tan, gray, orange-red, off-white) and austere yet luscious shapes (mostly irregular vertical bands and arcs) result in paintings that look wispy and ethereal but also mineral and geologic. Utilizing an abstract aesthetic, these paintings welcome and admit primal world-shaping forces like wind, erosion, ocean spray, buffeting rain, and sedimentation. Tucked into a suite of three of these Irish paintings is a single painting from Turner-Yamamoto’s Chalybeate series, made, quite literally, from mineral spring water in Yellow Springs, Ohio (Sidereal Silence: Chalybeate #18, 2016.)  Limonite (hydrated iron oxide) produces the prominent yellow-orange tones and hematite (the mineral form of iron oxide) produces darker, orange-red tones. To emphasize: this is not an abstract paintings made in the studio. Instead, it is a quasi-abstract paintings made in and with the natural world and it is absolutely riveting. Way back in the mid-19th century, in America, an important influence on Walt Whitman was Transcendentalist philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who counseled immersive, consciousness-altering experiences in nature, which could be channeled into writing and art (in his seminal essay “Nature,” from 1844, Emerson memorably described an expansive experience outdoors as becoming “a transparent eyeball.”) Many years later, Turner-Yamamoto’s paintings evince something very similar, a similar flowing exchange between self and world, artwork and world.

In his tremendous essay “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968), Robert Smithson declares how important it is for artists to go, “into places where remote futures meet remote pasts.” This seems especially pertinent for Turner-Yamamoto. Time is one of his chief themes, and his works often embrace a vast scale of both geologic and evolutionary time, as well as cultural history. His gritty, yet also delicate and sensitive, Constellaria paintings (three are included in this exhibition), while once again largely abstract, suggest organic material and the earth’s surfaces, but extend things even further, into the cosmos. The silvery Constellaria #13 (2017) includes silver leaf, a reddish plant resin traditionally called dragon’s blood, gesso and resin, but also ca. 450-million-year-old Ordovician fossil dust and ca. 440-million-year-old Silurian volcanic ash. Its rough, granular surface hints at actual land, either on this planet or another. Nearby, affixed to the wall, are jagged crystals grown on fossil fragments and covered in gleaming 24-karat gold leaf, making for a fascinating interplay between image and object. These small, seemingly free-floating objects suggest bedazzling meteors speeding through space.

Whether installed on the wall, directly on paintings, or as small sculptures on pedestals, Turner-Yamamoto’s small sculptures (which he calls “pentimenti” after the Italian term for alternations in a painting that reveal how an artist changed her or his mind when composing the work) resemble geologic specimens, fossils, and both archaeological and architectural fragments, but they also seem magical and talismanic.  They are actually hybrid creations, part found object and part made sculpture. With Pentimenti #59 (2017), Turner-Yamamoto grew crystals around a fragment of West Virginia coal from a mountaintop removal mining site.  The white crystals look wonderful and luminous as they envelop but don’t fully obscure the piece of dark coal.  With Pentimenti #56 (2017), Turner-Yamamoto grew crystals, covered in gold leaf, around a plaster fragment from an abandoned and decrepit 19th-century Catholic church in Cincinnati.  This ignoble bit of a ramshackle church has a new life as a resplendent precious metal or raw gem. Subtly, and with real sensitivity, both works respond to and, perhaps, heal sites of devastation: one in West Virginia where the whole top of a mountain was lopped off to get at the coal underneath, scarring the land for centuries, and the other a once impressive church fallen into ruin. 

Both Gabriela Albergaria and Shinji Tuner-Yamamoto incorporate raw natural substances into their work, and both also deal in increase.  Albergaria’s meticulous (even obsessive) drawings arise from an accrual of thousands of marks while Turner-Yamamoto’s additive works, both paintings and sculptures, involve the interaction between different materials as well as chemical reactions, and often change over time. What unites both artists is not a shared aesthetic but instead a shared sensibility. For all their acumen and knowledge, both artists remain very open to the natural world: intellectually, emotionally, and, very likely, spiritually. They are emboldened by their contact with nature, and they gladly usher this contact into art.  There is no haughty disregard for nature in this exhibition.  Instead what one encounters are thoughtful and spirited human intersections with the living world.