Biophilia at WORKS/San José

When an exhibition is subtitled Humans and the Natural World one might assume to experience some dire facts about what we have done to this planet. However, with Biophilia: Humans and the Natural World, curator Nanette Wylde shifts the focus away from environmental concerns and directs us to consider how we engage with nature, what we actually know about nature, and how has living in heavily built environments affected our relationships with nature. She explains, “Biophilia, a philosophy made popular by biologist E.O. Wilson, is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. According to Wilson, we humans have an affinity for the natural world that has evolved over millennia and is part of our genetic makeup.” Wylde’s selection of artists illustrate this philosophy with an engaging range of visual media and perspective.

A focus on seeking a connection to our understanding of the natural world is evidenced in Kent Manske’s Weave, an 8 x 12 foot collaged mural of invented organisms. This colorful expanse is a visual playground that holds the viewers gaze in delightful amazement and wonder as one tries to identify what they are seeing. Is that a caterpillar or my gut biome? In contrast are Annette Goodfriend’s mostly white sculptures which evoke an unsettling response as human fingers and feet sprout from and with plant life, including starfish, coral and tree limbs. This fusion makes one step back in squeamish allure, but also invites questions about our origins and future possibilities. 

Shari Bryant and Elizabeth Gómez both look to the animal kingdom to connect humans with nature. Bryant’s pastel portraits morph non-human animal features with confident, fierce, and amused black women’s faces. These Meladies or Melanated Ladies as Bryant calls them, are of an Afrofuturisitic genre which proudly demonstrates connection and integration of humans with other animals. Gómez shifts the animal-human relationship with four Magical Realism paintings, letting go of human dominance by replacing the image of human Mother Earth with a variety of Animal Mother Earths who are stepping in to take charge of a planet under neglect.

In Binh Danh’s daguerreotypes the viewer sees their own reflection in ten different American National Parks. The images feel familiar as they are iconic representations of American greatness that has been photographed and rendered repeatedly by significant artists. Yet, in viewing each image the dominant vision is of oneself with the greatness of the setting secondary. Danh’s choice of the daguerreotype and its mirrored surface is intentionally political. It references America as a country of immigrants and people of color who often do not have access to this most basic American resource.

Emily Gui makes her audience work a bit with Astroturf, a screenprinted roll of tracing paper with images of plastic lawns she has photographed on her neighborhood walks. Gui’s Fewer Better Things makes a strong statement about the ease of our consumption practices by displaying found objects—a shoe, a lamp, a phone cord, a hangar, a bottle, and the like—which are encased in pulped Amazon boxes. The shroud of pale brown covering each item removes their manufactured identity and the artificiality of their material nature. Gui smartly makes an effort to return these mass produces items back to the trees from which the boxes originate, and points our attention to the artificial nature of consumer culture.

The exhibition includes Minoosh Zomorodinia’s performance/video series Sensation in which the artist grapples with a metallic emergency blanket in windy nature settings. Zomorodinia began this series upon learning that migrants captured crossing the southern U.S. border were given these blankets in detention. Also of note are LeMonie Lightning Hutt’s ceremonial Dress of the Universe; Yunan Ma’s colorful felted galaxies; and Hector Mendoza’s black and white spray painted landscape of plant life overtaking man made items.

Contrary to what one might expect with this humans and nature theme, the artists in Biophilia: Humans and the Natural World are not professing environmental agendas, rather they subliminally nudge their audience towards an understanding of their own innate relationship with and perhaps distance from the natural world. The agenda of Wylde’s Biophilia appears to be to provide opportunities for the viewing audience to see themselves in works which demonstrate human longing for and capacity to re-invent a world they no longer inhabit.

Biophilia: Humans and the Natural World
an exhibition at WORKS/San José curated by Nanette Wylde

Exhibiting artists: Shari Bryant, Binh Danh, Elizabeth Gómez, Annette Goodfriend, Emily Gui, LeMonie Lightning Hutt, Yunan Ma, Kent Manske, Hector Dionicio Mendoza, and Minoosh Zomorodinia

October 6–November 5, 2023
WORKS/San José
38 South Second Street, San José, California 95113