Human Nature: Catherine Forster on man’s relationship with the wild at the Hyde Park Art Center

A hallway on the second floor of the Hyde Park Art Center contains a little piece of nature, tucked away. Turning the corner into the space outside the Black Box Gallery, the viewer sees what at first appears to be large photographs of verdant, leafy trees covered in vines. Upon closer inspection, the foreground of vines and leaves turns out to be mostly thick globs and lines of paint. For her exhibition, “They Call Me Theirs,” artist Catherine Forster printed out video stills of natural scenes, painted them, then digitized and reprinted them. In some of the inkjet prints, the paint closely mimics the natural contours of the image, while in one spectacular triptych from the “Hanging Garden Installation,” “Hearts,” a giant smear of paint with rich yellow, green, and orange streaks covers up almost all of the duller green scene behind it. Somehow the colorful smear seems more natural than the mostly obscured trees.

Forster, who graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002 after over a decade in consulting, took her inspiration for this exhibition from a trip to the wilds of Peru three years ago. “There was a presentness [there] that now I can only occasionally attain,” she writes. “However, I’ve come to question the authenticity of my experience. What was truly mine? What had actually been framed by National Geographic and travel videos?” An insightful question, and one addressed obliquely by much of the exhibition. Like Forster’s 2007 short film “…my actions smack of the soil,” this exhibition’s title is from a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem, “Hamatreya,” which decries the idea of ownership of land. “How am I theirs, / If they cannot hold me, / But I hold them?” asks the Earth in the poem. The prints on the wall challenge the idea that we can truly grasp the essence of nature, as does the accompanying wooden installation.

Within the Black Box Gallery itself stands a small, pristine cabin. The lumber to build it came from a historic Sears building on the West Side made of now-extinct Northern White Pine, but it smells strongly of newly cut wood. Despite the inherent rusticity of wooden cabins, there is something about this one–it is too symmetrical, shiny, and somehow artificial to be believably natural, although the simple bare wood and lack of ornament make clear it doesn’t belong in civilization either. A soundtrack of birdsong and woods noises plays outside the structure, and another, quieter one is on loop inside, creating the illusion of a cacophony of wildlife muted by the glass windowpanes. In the center of the cabin stands a sort of altar, or perhaps just a stand, the top of which holds a screen showing a video on repeat. The video, “Box Set 4 Seasons,” consists of fourteen minutes of nature close-ups. Various familiar plants wave gently in the breeze, critters skitter about, bugs buzz. It looks like the kind of film that should be accompanied by a quiescent narration about the life cycles of ferns–which is not to say the film is ineffective; on the contrary, it brings to mind our easy familiarity with garden-variety nature, which the oddly perfect wooden structure calls into question.

Knowing that Forster conceived the exhibition as a reaction to her trek through Peru, rather than a stroll through her garden, sheds light on the prints and installation. Forster presents familiar subjects, like trees and flowers, buried in the slightly alienating context of waves of paint and an artificial-natural cabin. The effect of this is, as Forster writes, “to question the distinctions we make between the natural and mediated world,” between our known world of houses and gardens and the unknown wilderness beyond the city limits. Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through November 23. Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 12pm-5pm. hydeparkart.org