Abby Williams Hill, “Sunset on Half Dome, Yosemite” Ross Mulhausen Courtesy
Abby Williams Hill, “Sunset on Half Dome, Yosemite” Ross Mulhausen Courtesy

Arts & Culture

Review: 2 women, 100 years apart, make art about nature at Kittredge Gallery

By Rosemary Ponnekanti

rponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

March 15, 2017 08:00 AM

You can’t get much more different than Abby Williams Hill and Isabella Gresser.

They’re women, and they’re white. But Williams Hill lived 100 years ago and painted the Northwest in hazy pink, while Gresser, based in Berlin, uses nature to create far more ominous multimedia views of our world. Going from one artist to the other inside the Kittredge Gallery at the University of Puget Sound isn’t just an art shock, it’s a startling insight into how our place in time shapes how we see our place in nature.

You’ll step into Gresser’s version of nature first. “Behind the Pines” swathes the bigger gallery space in darkness, with thought-provoking experimental videos inhabiting each wall. Merging poetry, cityscape and music, they reflect our overdigitized mindscape through a framework of nature. “Smart Seoul Poem” (a clever pun on “soul”) watches city dwellers rush past a section of sidewalk where a lone (real) tree looks out of place before a misty mural of a forest. Their smartphone solitude is eerily echoed in the lines of Herman Hesse’s poem: “How wondrous to walk through mists ... where none for the other exists/each is alone.” A fragmented Beethoven sonata gradually gets out of sync with itself in an electronic piano jangle.

On another wall, “Re Viewers” overlays a woman staring out at a lake and skyline with the hyperreality of a virtual reality game, sarcastically narrated by the man playing it. The subdued gray of the real lake is easily seduced (as we are) by the magical saturation and inversion of color, the birds, the paradise offered by the virtual reality. Watching, you become part of the insidious self-gratification and pleasure of virtual, rather than actual, reality.

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In the center of the room, Gresser mixes found photographs, text from poets (Nietzsche, Issa, Calvino) and her own tangled black-and-white drawings of a man living in a tree to examine the myth and poetic reality of the pine tree. In Gresser’s gentle, probing hands, the pine becomes a symbol of contemporary loneliness, yearning for connection, melancholy, emptiness.

By contrast, the small gallery space is bright and light. It’s cozy, but Williams Hill’s landscapes on the walls open up to the splendor of the West — seen in a highly subjective way. Williams Hill, who moved to Tacoma in 1889 as a 28-year-old and spent decades painting the local wilderness (often employed by the railways to do so), was privileged in quite a few ways: She was a woman paid to paint at a time when that was unusual, she could afford the time and equipment for camping, and she was educated. This small show, curated from the university’s collection of her work by a student class in curation, focuses on Williams Hill’s landscapes in national parks, in honor of those parks’ 100th anniversary last year.

Of course, the parks and their surroundings looked a little different 100 years ago: no crawling traffic jams in Yosemite, no cluster of development blocking the view of Mount Rainier. Even so, Williams Hill romanticizes these fierce, wild places in a way that belies the reality. Crater Lake is cropped to a tiny corner of the vast, cerulean circle, the ashy slopes a comforting salmon color and the lake gentle rather than forbidding. Cathedral Rocks in Yosemite — iconic among climbers and folks who watch them — are soft rather than stark, the washy trees becoming one with a Merced River that looks more like a farmhouse pond. The edges of Bryce and Grand canyons are blurred and prettified, and Mount Rainier, seen from Quartermaster Bay on Vashon, glows in a pinky haze threaded with green in sky and water — not the usual color for Puget Sound. Sequoia National Park is reduced to a personal-size tree with a trunk that echoes the pale pink of a dogwood behind it.

This is nature domesticated, remade in one woman’s image. Yet now, as back then, it makes us pause and think about these places beyond our doorstep — about why we treasure them, and how we find ourselves in them.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Behind the Pines and Painting the National Parks

Where: Kittredge Gallery, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma.

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays through April 15. Opening reception 5-7 p.m. Wednesday (March 22), curator talk 10 a.m.-noon March 24.

Cost: Free.

Information: 253-879-3701, pugetsound.edu/kittredge.