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Human ~ Nature Catalog Essay By Cooper Johnson

There is a beautiful catalogue available for the exhibition “Human~Nature” with work by Gary Brewer and Paul Paiement. The show is at the Brandstater Gallery, La Sierra University.

The catalogue has an excellent essay written by Cooper Johnson.

For anyone interested they can be purchased at cost for $12.95 from Blurb.


by Cooper Johnson

In marveling at any biological phenomenon, one can also feel—if one pays close enough attention—a slight tug at the belief that humans are special, some exception to the rest of nature. The world is filled with them: the sea-floor designs of the white-spotted pufferfish, the obsessive object-collecting of the Vogelkop bowerbird, the hanging nests of the baya weaver. Part of the wonder is the possibility that these creatures not only have richer subjective experiences than once thought, but might be able to form basic ideas, or project a model of what could be onto their environment. But the notion of a bird making decisions—or merely having a conscious experience—might sound preposterous to some. A bird with elaborate behavior is no different than a bird having evolved an exquisite plumage, they might argue. Even if the bird felt like it was making decisions, it is only unconsciously obeying genetic instructions written over millions of years, choicelessly gliding from action to action. Whereas human behavior, the thinking goes, is far too complicated and diverse to operate on the same rules.

It's this perceived separation from nature that Paul Paiement and Gary Brewer examine in HUMAN ~ NATURE. Though approaching the subject from differing aesthetics, they share a philosophical curiosity and technical mastery that exposes just how entangled the human view of nature is with human exceptionalism.

In Paiement’s Nexus series—in how "manmade" elements float amidst untouched, idealized landscapes—one might think of how the human mind stretches out into the world, projecting its mathematical models and its understanding of the world’s underlying structure. Paiement is apt to use modern architecture as an emblem of “manmade” and the romanticized tableaux of western landscape painting to represent “nature,” as it cues up our intuitions that each is starkly and explicitly distinct. But the pairing does not follow the common narrative: that humans are destroying nature or that humans need to "reconnect" with nature—which both presume a separation. Paiement subverts that presumption by presenting the “manmade” elements as hardly disrupting their surroundings. Th

eir soft tones reflect the surrounding pallet. Their translucence allows for them to blend in. Sometimes they are so gently presented, like through a shift from color to black-and-white, they’re almost imperceptible. Even when Paiement uses synthetic materials or carves into panel—evoking human’s polluting or destructive habits—those features nevertheless play into “nature’s” aesthetic by dissolving into the scene or by revealing the wood grain behind it.

Scenes like this speak to western intuitions of what looks "human" as opposed to what looks "natural": one appears orderly, organized, geometric; the other, messy, unruly, chaotic, complicated. But this is only due to an illusion of scale. That is, humans evolved to perceive only objects that would help them survive in pre-historic conditions, not things like sub-atomic particles or electron configurations. Indeed, there is order and organization on every known scale, down to the smallest divisions of matter—hierarchically nested rules governing everything from ecosystem down to organism, to tissue, to molecules and quarks. Like a fractal, the more one looks inward, the more one finds rules within rules, possibly without end. Kaleidoscopic determinism, all the way down.

The underlying mystery and wonder of why there is form at all—and why it reverberates from one scale to the next—is precisely the beauty Gary Brewer lets flow through his works in hyperrealistic detail. Brewer quotes from the microscopic to the cosmic, finding structural rhymes and echoes of forms. In the way he aligns pollen particles, orchids, and dark matter imagery onto backgrounds of abstracted organic patterns, one starts to sense an underlying rhythmic structure.

Even though Brewer's works don't obviously depict anything "human," they nonetheless swivel on anthropocentrism: on the one hand, they show how nature's creations can be bizarre, but on the other hand, reveal a ubiquitous and unifying system. It's only from a human perspective that something can appear bizarre and wondrous, only from a human perspective that unity and coherence become perceptible at the points they do in these pieces.

And in the context of Paiement's work, Brewer's can be extrapolated to contemplate human behavior, too, and even notions of free will. Human behavior is often viewed as so varying and complicated that it enjoys some mystical disconnect from its prior causes, some exemption from how gene and environment interact. But human behavior can be viewed as its own wilderness of rules within rules; an expanse of branches, stems, and leaves swaying and twitching in the winds of the world’s stimuli.

Ironically, exposing the entanglement of nature with the notion of human exceptionalism creates an urge to unravel it—to view nature without human bias or without thinking that we are separate from it. But therein is the subtle lesson of HUMAN ~ NATURE. The goal is not to achieve some perfectly inhuman perspective, but to understand and appreciate the beauty in the entanglement, in all of its entwined and tendrilled mess.

Cooper Johnson

Los Angeles, California

December 6, 2021

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