In Preserving Life
Mary Hrbacek’s Trees
By Thalia Vrachopoulos, May 9, 2023
In her latest solo show “Vanishing” at Paris Koh Fine Arts, in Fort Lee, N.J., Mary Hrbacek addresses one of the defining issues of our time; ecology and sustainability. However, unlike the environmental activists who saw fit to glue hands to art frames or who hurled food at masterpieces, Hrbacek examines the issue while commemorating life through her poetic depictions of trees. Commemorating because the tree is her protagonist and focus, so that, she scrutinizes its elemental constituents while monumentalizing it. In a similar way, the French artist Millet in the 19th Century monumentalized another humble subject like the peasant. Hrbaceck has spent most of her mature development on painting and drawing trees as if by representing them she can prevent their demise. Moreover, as a living being, the endangered tree assures viewer association causing an automatic sympathetic reaction.
Nature has been the subject of many artists these days when environmental sustainability and climate change are uppermost on people’s minds. Hrbacek’s “Struggle I”, 2022 and “Struggle II”, 2022 depict trees that allude to anthropomorphic forms. These organic soft and rounded painted forms are juxtaposed against hard edged and linear architectonic edges that very nicely convey the man-made against nature. These humanoid elements appear to be tangled, something analogous to a struggle for life. Hrbacek’s natural forms are represented in warm shades of pink and beige colors and are offset against rectilinear angles in cool blues and grays resulting in a syncopated rhythmical viewer eye movement.
Twisted 2 Naxos, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36,” 2020
Struggle I, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 44,” 2022
Related to the anthropomorphic works, are Hrbacek’s “Tree Woman in the Wind”, 2022, and its counterpart “Ascension”, 2022, paintings that speak directly to the exhibition’s theme “Vanishing” because they depict a rootless yet solid tree and an incorporeal tree respectively against blue/gray skies. The two works seen together formulate a tableau that offsets the solid vs void, or the substantial against the numinous. The significance of these images doesn’t necessarily need to be attributed to spirituality vs materialism, and it would not be a stretch to see them in terms of climate precarity and exploitation.
Hrbacek’s “Single Searching”, “Twisted 2 Naxos”, and “Street Smart”, all from 2020, evince trees growing in constricted architectonic places. In their struggle for life, the tree entities adapt to the angles of walls, floors, girders, columns and other architectural confinements. They are forced to twist and turn, curve and bend, align and otherwise alter their natural proclivities in order to survive. Hrbaceck’s trees may be struggling but they’ve found a way to stay alive by adapting to their context and this message is of restorative value to humanity. With a similar goal but with different visual forms Marina Abramovic and Alejandro Duran for Healing: “Life in Balance”, at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, tried to restore nature’s balance by collecting hundreds of plastic waste products from Mexico’s coast.
While focusing on ecological concerns, Hrbacek highlights the idea of renewal, healing and regeneration of life. She transforms the humble tree into visual images that can be considered spiritual yet simultaneously of contemporaneous concern, in that they grapple creatively with ecological issues in a poetic, contemplative manner that has great impact.
Tree Form Triptych, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24,” 2022
Header image:Vanishing, acrylic on linen, 40 x 44,” 2022
Images courtesy of the artist and Paris Koh Fine Arts