Filling the gallery space at the Main Library in Salt Lake City with a vivid marriage of opposing elements — made and found, organic and human-made, real and reflected, flat and three-dimensional, natural and civilized — the exhibit “Ditchbank” features paintings by Downy Doxey-Marshall and sculpture by Heidi Moller Somsen. The show’s title alludes to the two artists’ shared interest in the “shaggy unkempt wild places, existing just beyond our manicured yards,” or the parts of nature that are closest to us, the wilderness that pushes through the cracks of the urban environment. We tend to crop road signs out of our landscape photos, prefering to think of “real” nature as pure and civilization as removed from the wild. “Ditchbank” reminds that humans live in a hybrid environment and everything occurs in the midst of cycles of material change, all of which involve people as much as plants and animals.
Nature is in perpetual flux, and the sculpture and paintings in “Ditchbank” show this flux continues whether you’re in the middle of the forest, under the sea, or next to a freeway. Somsen’s “Strata #1” has a base that looks like a gritty cross-section of layered sediment. Sitting on top are two plants, (they could be either underwater or terrestrial), and a thin piece of bicycle inner tube emerges from the mouth of one and loops around the sculpture. The piece presents the natural process of building up and how it supports life, with the rubber loop giving the impression of perpetual movement. Similarly, Doxey-Marshall’s large, colorful canvases, like “Two Clouds,” depict the sky and trees refracted in pools busy with the cycle of living and dying. Leaves fall and logs decompose in pools, and the water seeps into the ground to nourish the living plants. Doxey-Marshall has never selected just the most beautiful of vistas to represent an idealized and pure nature, instead choosing places where humans have encroached. In last year’s exhibit “kloTH,” the painter also worked on uncelebrated areas of the outdoors. Her painting “Promenade,” like works in her earlier show, could be a puddle next to the freeway, captured in a moment of gray shadows and warm light dancing on the surface of the water.
The two artists also bring human figures into the mix. Somsen’s blue-glazed ceramic sculpture, “In Potentia Blue,” presents flora merging with a female figure. The sculpture hints at how the fruits of the land and sea nourish and build our bodies (the left arm of the ceramic woman is a frond of seaweed or a sprig of a terrestrial plant), a debt that we don’t always remember. Doxey-Marshall’s “Self Reflecting” may be a human shape reflected in a pool, or a human-shaped depression filled with water. In either case, bits of sky and plants fill the figure and help define the human shape.
Many of Doxey-Marshall’s paintings are reflections that unmoor the viewer’s perspective and dance between beautiful depictions of nature and nonsubjective planes of color and brushstrokes. Much like Monet’s “Water Lilies Series,” which art historians recognize as some of the first semi-abstract paintings, works like Doxey-Marshall’s “Rainbow Bank” blur the line between subjective and non-subjective, or what a person observes or idealizes nature to be.
The show also addresses the ways that human-made materials and changes to the environment have encroached onto almost every area of the natural world, for better or for worse. Somsen’s rubber inner tubes are regular features of her organic multimedia sculptures and serve her well as a versatile and compelling element. “Ditchbank Reverie,” for example, is a tall, striking ceramic palm-like plant sculpture, with hanging black rubber instead of foliage. “Oh Wild and Nameless” is a piece with a glazed ceramic female bust with the black rubber vines coming out of her neck. Both show a different way of approaching the inner tubes. Just like the other loops in the exhibit, here we see that humans take natural materials and use them to create rubber and plastic, which then end up back in the natural world once their use has been filled.
Change and hybridity are not threatening in “Ditchbank,” just part of the normal order of things. However, there’s something like a warning embedded in the show. Yes, nature persists and continues to develop on the fringes of our urban sprawl and often in the “in-between spaces.” Ditch banks have their own hybrid beauty, even if you can sometimes find candy wrappers or bits of tires, life and death go on there. But still, when human society transforms natural materials into products that are indestructible and outside the natural cycles of growth and decay, there will always be consequences down the line. That imaginary (in reality, non-existent) barrier between nature and civilization can make us forget how interconnected we are with the environment, but anything we do to impact the land or sea will eventually loop back to us.
Ditchbank: Paintings and Sculpture, an exhibit by Heidi Moller Somsen and Downy Doxey-Marshall, The Gallery at Library Square, Main Library, Salt Lake City, through June 15.
Hannah McBeth studied art history, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology before getting a Master’s at Cambridge University. She enjoys writing, hiking, and traveling to far-off places. Follow her on Twitter @hannahmcbee.