Surprisingly Natural: An Essay by José Ruiz

Our earth is as natural as it is artificial. The debate of contemporary existence stems from the struggle to consider this truth in our everyday lives. Is it possible to operate in one without losing the integrity of the other? Is it possible to enjoy the other without feeling responsible for one's participation in the former?

Latitude: 40.84001
Longitude: -73.87909

From the center of the bustling density of West Farms Square, sandwiched between Boston Road and E. 177th Street and anchored by the now-defunct Bronx Street, stems the curatorial perspective for this leg of the exhibition. An aerial view, as seen from Google Earth, depicts a mutated co-existence between the natural and the artificial. Alongside a carwash, a bargain boutique, towering train tracks, and a cascade of highways, the Bronx River Art Center is right at home here, acting as a decoy and advocate for its pocket of nature.

The unique role of the Bronx River Art Center outlines the site-specific gesture and concept that drives the ensuing exhibition. The duality of nature and artifice is threaded through artistic lenses that harness individual and shared experiences in public spaces. Over several months, the selected artists have radiated from these coordinates like spokes. They have traversed throughout the rest of the borough aware that their discoveries would ultimately be re-immersed within the original social and artistic temperature that defines our community and organization.

The elliptical nature of the artists' physical and psychological adventures, many of them realized for the first time and specifically for this exhibition, is Surprisingly Natural. If examined in a different light, many of the photographs could have been shot in countless nature-bound towns throughout the U.S. What positions these works within the spectrum of contemporary art versus documentary photography is the unseen ambience that looms in each photographic situation. It is the feeling of not being completely alone or safe within nature. It is the sense of trespassing, the framing of the artist as uninvited and prohibited. It is the reward of finding unexplored areas in frequently treaded natural spaces.

This level of friction moves beyond voyeurism and enters a realm more accurately defined within the genre of photo-based actions and interventions. As the photographer's role shifts through the process of capturing images, the absurd, decayed, and surreal aspects of Bronx-based nature become platforms for meditation and critique. A view where one can analyze the trickle-down consequences of our culture's neglect of nature and nature's simultaneous resistance to the forces that shape its condition.

Artists have historically had the ability to put up mirrors to the perpendicular aspects of life in order to create poetic, symbolic and metaphorical spaces. The fieldwork conducted by these artists uncovered three notable methodologies:

1. Nature of the Bronx as Uncanny Territory - Jason Falchook, Katherine Radke, Benjamin Swett

2. Nature of the Bronx as Improbable & Renegade Activity - Holly Lynton, Laura Napier

3. Nature of the Bronx as Pilgrimage & Destination - Mac Carbonell & Luke Stettner, Bettina Johae, Yumi Janairo Roth

Nature of the Bronx as Uncanny Territory frames the overlap between nature, the individual, and the urban grid. The opposition between the intent and use of nature imprints surreal moments of growth and decay and peculiar passages of time. From the awareness that arises from a setting sun captured with over twenty exposures to the sense of displacement relayed by an ominous sign reading "And You Are There", Jason Falchook's photographs mark the subtle physicality of being in nature with an acute patience and connection to its patterns.

Katherine Radke enters various dense woodlands and navigates through their mystery to uncover poetic glimpses of past human life and activity. Staying within the urban divide, Benjamin Swett's images are consumed by nature's imposition on concrete parameters. The artist searches frequently used sidewalks, street corners and highways for signs of unusually distinct, beautiful, and out-of-context moments where nature triumphs and gives luminance to the man-made.

Nature of the Bronx as Improbable & Renegade Activitypresents an interest in highlighting atypical practices led by concerns in nature, landscape, and ecology. Holly Lynton's body of work locates the custom of traditional beekeeping in various parts of the borough. From the Bronx Zoo to the St. Augustine Catholic Church Rectory Garden, the project balances the history and progression of beekeeping from the rural sector to the city.

The unexpected nature of this activity, or its invisibility to those who are not looking for such rarities, extends through Laura Napier's project, Bronx Guerrillas, which is inspired from the practice of Guerrilla Gardening. According to Napier, this international, alternative movement, driven by covertly planting in fenced-off empty lots, cracks in sidewalks, and other unauthorized territories, operates with a similar ethos as graffiti art. Seed bombs and other miscellaneous artillery become tools to create gardens and plant life in strange and uncared-for spaces. Napier's photographs of local guerrilla gardens, along with her own interventions around the Bronx River Art Center, turn the fragility of nature into activism.

Nature of the Bronx as Pilgrimage & Destination mediates between the journey and experience of finding nature and the artists' discoveries attained upon arrival. With interdisciplinary, collaborative and interventionist tactics, the artist becomes a guide critically promoting unknown paths and new destinations. Mac Carbonell and Luke Stettner invite photographers of any age and skill level to scout and shoot an obtuse intersection, as photographic subject, in Williamsbridge. 740 East Gun Hill Road transforms from a nameless address to a site that welcomes aspiring photographers and challenges them to find nature. The resulting installation, made up of each participant's submitted photographs amplifies collaboration and distills authorship. In return, a common intersection reigns in multiple perspectives that come together, co-exist, and grow apart.

Moving exponentially out of the street corner, Bettina Johae weaves viewers through the entire silhouette of the Bronx in an enduring pursuit to outline the borough by photographing over 500 points of reference and interest along the way. Each of the images in the series borough edges, nyc - the Bronx , carries the viewer through the boundaries that define place but exist as extreme and distant frontiers. Issues of mapping and navigation are further explored by Yumi Janairo Roth whose Meta Mapa: Bronx offers a humorous and witty contemplation between memory and location. The artist's interventions in West Farms Square position her as a lost wanderer, perhaps taking a wrong turn on the way to the zoo and operating only with a tourist-styled map. Asking passing strangers to point her in the right direction, her guiding map unfolds to be an image of a hand-drawn map on the palm of someone else's hand, marking all of the nearby green spaces.

The subsequent confusion and disorientation imposed on the stranger, and now viewer, simulates the similar bewilderment still apparent when putting the words Bronx and Nature in the same sentence. Janairo Roth's map symbolically leads us back to a specific point -

Latitude: 40.84001
Longitude: -73.87909

- and to a factual model/organization that enables these seemingly disparate words to co-exist in the same sentence.

- José Ruiz, Bronx, NY, 2008