Taking New Cues From Nature in Amagansett

On view at Ille Arts
A bronze cast by Ned Smyth

While turning 70 might be daunting to some, for Ned Smyth it was a productive year, and one that gave him a new body of work, now on view at Ille Arts in Amagansett.

For more than a decade the artist was engaged with a group of small glacial stones he used as a launching point for photographs and large-scale bronze casts fashioned from three-dimensional copies he made of the stones. These became the basis for much of his work and quite a few public commissions as well. 

Now he has turned his attention to twigs and other pieces of trees found in various places and in various states of natural erosion and abrasion by water. Using the same approach as in his other series, he has taken large-format chromogenic print photographs, each six feet by four feet, and made cast-bronze pieces from the objects.

The gallery has the prints hanging on the walls, spread out through the entirety of the space, with enough white space between to add to their monumentality. The eastern wall features photos of the objects that look architectural or resemble mechanical implements. The western wall’s images are of wood that has an anthropomorphic quality. The intense magnification also allows us to see how the camera, in its translation of three-dimensional objects into two dimensions, often engages in its own abstraction.

For an artist whose youth was devoted to constructing work that referred to classicism in architecture, a wood piece that has a distinct resemblance to the Louvre’s “Nike of Samothrace” or “Winged Victory” appears a bit like coming home. The small piece has the compact power of a talisman or totem; the photograph is reminiscent of the statue it resembles in its monumentality. 

How does a found piece of wood resemble a classical Greek statue? Actually, pretty convincingly, as it turns out. The viewer needs a bit of imagination, but the bulbous top that protrudes backward like wings and the way Mr. Smyth has balanced it on its pointed end like a ballerina give it the grace of the original. Given that the marble statue is missing a head and has suffered its own abrasion, and that its Hellenistic style emphasizes patterns within the wings and the folds of her filmy garment, it is not a huge leap.

Speaking of ballet, the photo next to it is of a piece of wood that resembles a yogi executing the Dancer’s Pose. The photo next to that could be many things, my own impression is of an abstracted “Inspiration of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio or a dancing flame. The comparisons can seem convoluted, but the complexity of the allusions underlines how evocative each piece is. 

On the opposite wall there are pieces that look like human bones or organs; one piece appears like a heart on a stick. Its much smaller bronze counterpart seems more like a mace or other lethal blunt object. The other wooden remnants pictured on this wall also have a solidity to them that emphasizes their form over any linear characteristics. It is what makes Mr. Smyth’s thinner and more delicate twigs and branches and their facsimiles appear even more like drawings in the air. 

The tension between these more linear works and the solid mass of the others parallels fundamental concerns in art making that can be traced from classical to contemporary expression. 

The photos in the room form a kind of idiosyncratic forest, one that has the presence and power of nature and the breath and heartbeat of natural phenomena. Sara DeLuca, the owner and curator of Ille, has placed the smaller sculptures, ranging from 6 1/2 to 23 inches high but mostly on the shorter end of the scale, together on top of a large central island. Its top functions as a common plinth for each sculpture. Grouped together in this way, they appear like foundlings, a precious and distinctive collection dwarfed by the colossuses surrounding them. They can be appreciated singularly and as an impressive assemblage all at once.

Mr. Smyth has given us an unusual and affecting exhibition, one that continues to advance the nobility of his natural acquisitions, incorporating an organic quality that animates them in a way not possible with the stones. It will remain on view through Monday.

He will take part in tomorrow’s sold-out PechaKucha event at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill at 6 p.m. The evening features short slide shows by several creative individuals from the East End who discuss their work. A waiting list is available on site for those who wish to attend but are not registered.

The original twig of which the bronze piece above was copied and then cast, photographed from a different angle.