Jack Elliott at Dowd Gallery

During a historical moment which sees climate change as one of the most pressing political and scientific issue of our time, Jack Elliott: Laying in the Cut serves as a poignant reminder of our dependence on forests to support the built environment, as well as the long-lasting implications that environmental destruction has upon the urban landscape.  On view in the Dowd Gallery from August 30 – October 16, 2021, the show featured works from various stages of the Ithaca-based sculptor and educator’s artistic career, highlighting the artist’s lifelong commitment to issues surrounding human ecology, nature, and the Anthropocene.

Whether taking the form of large-scale solitary objects or smaller two-dimensional wall-mounted pieces, the works assembled for the Dowd Gallery share one thing in common: they are constructed out of – or in relation to – the remnants of trees, which are combined with a variety of other organic materials or digital technologies to create striking forms that consider the intersection between humans, the natural environment and the man-made one. The resulting effect is an atmosphere that is at once mysterious and otherworldly, with earthly allusions to the destruction of the environment. 

Deriving from treeforms that have been harvested as a result of disease or other obstructions, these so-called Arborworks allow the artist to investigate the relations between people and trees and the biophysical environment that we share.  Operating as a retrospective, the exhibition pays homage to Elliott’s long-term fascination with the material culture of the anthroposphere and the ways in which its formation is often indicative of society's values as they pertain to the natural world.  The highly complex and scarred surfaces of Elliott’s treeforms suggest the forces of creation – or natural erosion – infusing the gallery with a feeling of history, and of time; although, perhaps a time that can never be fully grasped, as we struggle to come to terms with the results of human activity upon the ecosystem.

Reminiscent of ancient archeological ruins or monuments, Elliott’s work invokes a ritual past, conjuring a time inhabited by pagan goddesses and mythological beings, an effect that is reinforced by Elliott’s choice of titles in works like Asclepius (2020), Dianic (2013), and Venus (2021).  Yet, there is often a playful quality to these words, some posessing a duality of meaning:  Demisi (2016), for example, refers to a Latin word for ‘tree falling,’ but it also means demise or surrender.  In this piece, a large mass of treetrunk has been riven in two, after the final hinge of fiber remaining from the initial cut succumbs to the tension from the two sections it links together in precarious balance, creating two opposing landscapes of inversely related filaments.  Here, we find a tension that is playing out throughout much of the show, one that often points toward a set of dualities – mythology vs. the mundane, anthropocentric vs. biocentric, science vs. art, and so forth – an aspect that could be seen as an attempt to undermine and challenge conventional understandings of established binaries.  This tension is further explored through the juxtaposition between natural materials and man’s intervention through tools or other technologies, and the implications inherent in these interactions.

An Associate Professor in the Design and Environmental Analysis Department in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, Elliott’s interdisciplinary practice as an artist, designer, architect, and educator is fueled by questions surrounding how to integrate appropriate technology through the physical project situated in a real-world context.  Merging individual aesthetics with technological or scientific modes of creative production, his artistic practice enables him to delve deeper into these concerns through experimentation with a range of techniques from 3-D printing and laser-cut technology to traditional Chinese lacquering – which he mobilizes to facilitate deeper, more complex questions regarding environmental ethics and aesthetics.  

In this light, by operating as a mode of experimental creativity that conjoins artistic experimentation with scientific research, Elliott’s work might be productively considered in relation to what the German poststructuralist philosopher Jürgen Habermas identified as a critical concern when contemplating the relationship between modern science and the role it played in shaping the public sphere.  Writing in 1991, Habermas lamented what he saw as the stifling and normalizing conditions of modern society under the influence of scientific and technical rationality, advocating instead for alternative conditions of possibility which he hoped might reawaken the liberatory potential of rationality through the cultivation of critical thinking.

While climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic may constitute two of the most important scientific and political issues facing human life today, there continues to remain skepticism over the seriousness of these crises.  While science has not been able to effectively mobilize any radical shift in popular or political momentum in terms of collective solidarity over how to address these issues, it has, on the other hand, been within the realm of the aesthetic that widespread shifts in subjectivity have historically emerged.  While not attempting to offer any concrete solutions to something as complex as climate change, by testing and exploring the boundaries between science and art, makers like Elliott continue to reveal the extent to which these fields might work together to inspire new ways of thinking about knowledge and truth within the public sphere.

Wylie Schwartz teaches as a visiting assistant professor of modern and contemporary art history and theory at SUNY Cortland.  She received her Ph.D. in Art and Architectural History at Binghamton University (Spring ’21) and is currently working on expanding upon research conducted in her doctoral dissertation that explores the tendency of certain artists working during the first half of the twentieth century to appropriate the tone of scientific language – conceiving of their work as a form of research or experimentation – and the implications of such activity, in order to write a fuller and more diverse history of the kinds of concerns that dominated in avant-garde artistic practice.  Wylie’s contribution to the faculty biennial is an essay on Ithaca-based artist and educator Jack Elliott’s solo exhibition which took place at the Dowd Gallery during the fall of 2021.