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Observations on a Stand of White Wood

The Saturday afternoon was surprisingly breezy with plenty of spring’s billowing white clouds. Driving down for an evening away in Savannah, just past the turn off for the picturesque Sheldon Church ruins, we came to a most striking view: petrified trees standing sentential in the low marsh grasses so ubiquitous in the South Carolina low country. These trees struck me as something separate, monoliths raised in juxtaposition to the saline waters in these parts. Some have fallen or broken but the rest—stripped, elegant, unadorned—reinforce the enduring and hearty nature of trees. Unrelentingly white and bare, they shouldn’t still stand with our weather and the environmental conditions here, but they do.

Considering these naturally existing land art sculptures takes me back to the moment I fist saw some of Louise Bourgeois’s early Personage pieces. Bourgeois’s large retrospective traveling from London’s Tate Modern to New York’s Guggenheim was the first exhibition catalogue I ever worked on and one that helped me to define the way I consider art. Her work is challenging and produces a visceral reaction—be it one of love or repulsion—and I have felt both deeply. It was one thing to work on the book in preparation for the opening and another all together to see these now familiar pieces in situ. A two foot high raised white platform, elevated from the viewer, peppered with sticks of washed wood, each one unique and considered, still delivering all the impact they had at their first showing in New York when the artist was still a new mother and a new New Yorker.

Her totem like works are often shown, as they were in London, collected in a cluster, becoming a literal stand of reimagined wood. Early on Bourgeois was photographed with her grove of Personage on the roof of her Manhattan apartment. This image of her present among her forest feels liminal—it is her space to cross—the rest of us must be satisfied with a more distant, discrete observation point.

As we look out over the mash and into that stand of dead wood, we are able to remain a bit romantic about nature’s own sculpture. Because if we set one foot into the salty, sulfurous decomposing plant matter that is a Carolina marsh, there would be little romance left. Content with the experience of this parallel observation point, I see this dead stand of bare trunks perforated by that first viewing of ashy totemic people sculptures, and I respect the continuity.

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