Sculpture Magazine, Jul/Aug 1997

"From Light to Leaf: The Installation Art of Beth Galston"

by Marty Carlock

Beth Galston's work has always possessed a romantic quality--accessible, even sensual, yet paradoxically structured and coolly intellectual. Her most recent installations, evincing less control, more emotion, and very little technology, might surprise a viewer who has not followed her odyssey from techno-art into nature.

Galston went to M.I.T. almost 20 years ago to work with that most elusive of aesthetic media, light, and its counterpart, shadow. Over time, the high-tech materials she utilized to manipulate light have faded from her work, replaced by found items from nature. At the Kansas City Art Institute in the late 70's, Galston had done some site work with skeletal aspects. "There was something about walls and windows," she recalls. "The shadows started to become important." From structured, architectonic early works, she move to flashy manipulation of strobes, dimmers, and light reflections. But the mirrors, she says, "were too seductive, too easy. I wanted something opposite."

Gauzy, romantic light-and-scrim installations in very large spaces followed, often conceived as performance pieces with dancers. In related but more recent installations, she created columns from heavy steel mesh, lighted so they threw architectonic shadows on suspended tracing paper.

A Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe (1990-92) led Galston into experiments with industrial materials, the delicacy of her early work disappearing as she sought more permanence. She exhibited outdoor pieces made of perforated metal, clunky steel grating with round holes in it, and was not dismayed when weeds obscured them. She saw that vegetation could knit industrial materials with nature.

Galston next turned her concepts inside out: instead of placing structures in an indoor environment, she created her own boundaries by building a transparent enclosure outside. A screen room on stilts, 18 feet square, was her 1994 contribution to Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York. In designing Tree/House, she carefully chose birch trees whose trunks related to the size of the verticals and planted them where they could grow up in a central opening. Thoughtfully, she provided a ladder so people could climb into the sculpture, and they did.

"At Socrates," she says, "architectural, industrial, and natural materials started to have equal weight. Socrates is a park--but in the city. Tree/House was a culmination of that thought.

Going to the MacDowell Colony the following summer, she had determined that "I wasn't going to bring anything but string and wire. Everything else, I was going to find." Walking the grounds, she collected branches, then pinned bits of them to the wall as a "twig hieroglyphic".

For a recent site-specific group show at the Duxbury Art Complex Museum in Massachusetts, her technology became close to imperceptible. Many viewers never found Leaf Boats at all; others did so with sudden, double-take awareness that the leaves floating on a tiny pond were the wrong colors, iridescent blue, red, and green. Totally invisible was the cork glued to each leaf and tethered to the bottom so the leaves would not all clump up on the shoreline. Galston saw the pond as a contained space, like a room, and used light shimmering on leaf and water as a sculptural element.

In her installation, Leaf Dreams, at Boston Sculptors at Chapel Gallery last winter, wonderful things happened with leaves and the shadows of leaves. (A smaller-scale adaptation of Leaf Dreams is currently at the Brattleboro, Vermont, Museum and Art Center through November 2.) At Chapel Gallery she was awestruck by a huge cucumber magnolia on the lawn outside. To find out what it was, she consulted a 1937 booklet, Trees of New York, left by her plant physiologist father. Not really knowing what she would do with them, Galston collected great trash bags full of fallen foliage from the tree, as well as smaller bags from Japanese maples, ginkgos, and sycamores whose colors and leaf forms she had admired. She let some leaves dry and curl, and pressed others more or less flat. She coated thousands of leaves with brushed-on matte beeswax.

The centerpieces of the installation were long, low platforms covered with white microcrystalline wax and stacks of magnolia leaves. Near the entrance the leaves stood in regimented order, 25 to a stack, 5 rows across, and 40 ranks deep. As they receded into the room, they became more unruly, the stacks messy, the platforms set at angles. At the end, the leaves, unwaxed, clustered in their own natural chaos to form a parable, perhaps, about humanity's attempts to control and discipline nature.

Instrinsically very beautiful, fan-shaped, sun-colored ginkgo leaves were similarly stacked and arranged in a neat 48-inch square on the floor. On a shalf above, a pile of gingko leaves sat in disorderly contrast.

Though she provided some structure, Galston wanted the installation to look like something the leaves might do themselves. She strung invisible garden netting from the floor up into the rafters and hung sycamore leaves on it, as if swirled upward by the wind, fewer and fewer as the leaves became higher and farther away.

Unpressed leaves dry into fist shapes; Galston pinned some of these to the wall and illuminated them, creating abstract shadows evocative of her early work. She made neat, circular piles of the strangely shaped seed pods of the magnolia, the velcro-barbed hulls of beechnuts, and the three-sided seeds. Two other small piles, of different-hued red maple leaves, punctuated the space with persistent color.

Into the installation the sculptor incorporated pages from her father's booklet, multiplied and vastly enlarged: huge images at the entry for the cucumber magnolia on the walls, smaller crumpled vellum copies incorporated into leaf piles on the floor, and cut-out leaves mixed in with real ones. In a mind-eye game, she painted some sycamore leaves white, letting real white leaves and false which photocopies swirl, collect, and masquerade for each other.

Balancing technology and nature, Galston deals in dichotomies: macro and micro, order and disorder, real versus fake, structure versus chaos. Leaf Dreams made gestures toward obsessive control; the leaves "marched" in orderly rows up the gallery floor, humorous, slightly ominous, all lined up. Yet near the wall another force lifted, released, flew off.

Playful and thoughtful, Galston improvises first and then stands back to consider what it means. Within her visually hypnotic imagery, she provides fodder for pondering.

Marty Carlock is the author of A Guide to Public Art in Greater Boston.

Boston Herald, Jan 17, 1997

" 'Leaf Dreams' mingles science, philosophy and sculpture"

by Joanne Silver

The cucumber tree outside Boston Sculptors at Chapel Gallery stands bare and crisp against a wintry sky. Inside the gallery's vaulted, timbered space, Beth Galston has stacked, strewn and swirled leaves and seed pods from this tree as well as a beech, a sycamore, a ginkgo and several nearby maples in an installation called "Leaf Dreams." If the snowy West Newton landscape appears dead or at least dormant, the space within the former youth chapel is alive with leaves. Their colors, shapes and textures coalesce in a dance at once random and exquisitely choreographed.

Galston's meditations on leaves extend far beyond the end of a tree's branches. In fact, although hundreds and perhaps thousands of leaves cover portions of the floor, walls and ceiling of the gallery, they serve as much to raise questions as the answer them: What creates the myriad variation in the leaves of a single tree? What is random in the natural world and what is ordered? What clues does the visible universe offer to what is left invisible?

"Leaf Dreams" presents a lyrical inquiry that mingles science, philosophy and sculpture. At the entrance to the exhibition, Galston has posted an enlarged reproduction of a page from a pamphlet give to her by her father, a plant physiologist. The sheet outlines--by form, shape, arrangement, lobe and margin--50 common trees of New York. Beneath this chart, the artist has deposited a pile of waxed photocopies of an illustration of the cucumber leaf, a cluster that effectively blurs the boundary separating art and life.

Running aisle-like nearly the length of the former chapel, a series of platforms holds Galston's carefully constructed stacks of cucumber-tree leaves. Coated in beeswax and neatly arranged in a grid nearest the front door, these stacks disintegrate by the far end into a pile of unwaxed, dried leaves. To one side, autumnal piles of maple leaves form deep red circles on the gallery floor. A messier, seemingly windblown mound of sycamore leaves clings knee-deep along the opposite wall, then rises upward, flinging individual leaves--some waxed, some unwaxed and some painted a ghostly white--upward into the room's vaulted heights. Golden, fan-shaped ginkgo leaves create two contrasting collections: one, a random clump perched on a shelf close to the entrance; the other, a meticulous mosaic of the delicate leavees, arranged on the floor just beneath the shelf.

Behind Galston's obsessively organized ingredients. "Leaf Dreams" investigates notions that cannot be so easily manipulated. By focusing on minute details, she encourages viewers to reflect on something beyond the minutiae. Eternity lurks within this gathering of frozen fleeting moments, poetry within nature's infinite but almost imperceptible variety, new life within the crumbling fragility of decay. Galston has spent her career as an artist channeling light and viewer's perceptions through environments she has found or created. In "Leaf Dreams", her first effort as a member of the Boston Sculptors, the artist has explored her newest surroundings and found them rich in meaning and mystery.

Boston Globe, Jan 15, 1997

"Kicking sculpture off its pedestal"

by Christine Temin

Different media have dominated different eras of art history: Think of painting in 19th-century France, for instance, pace Rodin. At the end of the 20th century, sculpture is enjoying a particularly fertile period, thanks to an explosion of new materials and forms and artists' willingness to work almost anywhere, with almost anything. Two shows I've seen in the last week, one in London, the other in West Newton, demonstrate how exciting sculpture can be when it swells to fit a dramatic space.

Leaves that fell in auturm from a cucumber magnolia tree outside the Chapel Gallery in West Newton are now inside it, as part of Beth Galston's installation "Leaf Dreams". The show marks Galston's debut as a member of the Boston Sculptors at Chapel Gallery group.

Not that she's a newcomer to sculpture. Her past works have often used scrims or screening, translucent materials that shape space without blocking light. She's done decor for a dance about Antarctica, sets for a dance about a bird-woman who inhabits a forest of gauzy "trees," and a "Tree/house" on stilts, rectangles of metal mesh protecting the tops of some spindly city trees and allowing visitors eye-to-leaf contact. By way of introducing her work to a new public, Galston has put models and handsome photographs of some of her past projects in the smaller of the Chapel Gallery's two spaces.

"Leaf Dreams," meanwhile, occupies the main, majestic space. Galston has worked with leaves before. She floated brightly colored ones in the pond at the Art Complex in Duxbury last summer. The Chapel Gallery project is even finer than that one, both in its delicate command of the soaring space and in its equally delicate meditation on mortality. Besides the leaves, she's included seed pods that hold out hope for regeneration.

The installation is also a dialogue between the orderliness of science and that of nature, which is less comprehensible to humans. Blown-up vellum photocopies of a tree identification pamphlet hang on the walls. Galston has also crumpled pages of the pamphlet on the floor, leaves from books keeping company with leaves from trees.

The works in the show vary enormously in scale, from a tiny circular heap of crushed and shredded brown leaves that huddles quietly in a corner to a long leaf train that slices across the floor on a bold diagonal. The train is a series of wax-covered platforms whose cargo is piles of leaves. The first piles have been obsessively sorted, with the largest leaves on the bottom, the smallest on the top. By the end of the train, the sorting goes awry, threatening to collapse into chaos, a reminder that humanity's attempts at tidying up nature can go poof! with one good gust of wind. Galston incorporates different sorts of leaves, including ones far flashier than those of the cucumber tree, and she deftly exploits their different personalities. The red leaves from Japanese maples tend to frizz; glamorous golden ginkgo leaves, conscious of their elegant fan shape, line up as if auditioning for a part on a William Morris wallpaper. But above them, on a shelf cantilevered out from the wall, is a heap of ginkgos that have been crushed, their shaped sacrificed.

The leaves' relationships with architecture are several and varied. On one wall, leaves are pinned at eye level, but they squirm away like recalcitrant toddlers, their stems stretching into the air. On another wall is a pattern created by dozens of leaves, with paper leaves filling in when the real ones run out. (This piece reminds me of Cragg's wall works, just as Galston's leaf circles remind me of the great circles of stones British sculptor Richard Long installs on gallery floors.)

In the most theatrical piece in this installation, Galston starts with a pile of leaves on the floor, then lets them ascend vertically, clinging to nearly invisible wires. The ascending leaves cast two sets of shadows, one emphatic, the other barely there, a shadow of a shadow. Finally, some leaves take flight: These are painted white, as if they've attained a purity necessary to soar to the ceiling.