On Ian Boyden and “Meditations on the Breath of Trees”
—Terry Toedtemeier, Curator of Photography, Portland Art Museum
There is a place, with no exact location, that exists at the confluence of two fundamental kinds of artistic perception: one, of beauty visible everywhere around us; the other, of beauty envisioned in the world of thoughts and musings, knowledge and questions. It is from this place, where the visible and the envisioned come together, that the vehicle of Ian Boyden's artistic production derives its power and sets its course. In this most recent series of works, wind serves as Boyden's muse. Yet Meditations on the Breath of Trees explores the agency of wind as but one of many forces that drive the unifying cycles of nature.
Boyden lives in Walla Walla, Washington. Flanked by the Blue Mountains at the eastern edge of the vast Columbia Plateau, the landscape surrounding Walla Walla is rarely without wind. In fact, some 25 miles to the west, on a line of hills extending east-southeast from a place called the Wallula Gap, score upon score of three-bladed power generators extend for miles along the ridgetop. As the towering blades of these behemoth machines turn in their elegant silence, the trees of Boyden's poetic vision curve in unison against the sky. The Wind Left the Pattern of Bear Claws: a title and imagery that convey better than a weather forecast both the effect and the feel of conditions that are commonplace here. On such a day, white caps blanket the waters at Wallula Gap, a place where the south-running Columbia River turns hard west on its journey to the sea, 300 miles downriver.
The River and the River's Dream of Possible Courses. Boyden's river, translated through an act of painting that is at once a matter of masterful control and a function of the way pigments are drawn out of solution by the capillary thirst of paper fiber, is, like the very means by which he has depicted it, an expression of process. Though we often slip into thinking of rivers as fixed features, they are in fact ever changing. Once we see them as the inevitable result of gravity directing the movement of water over land, it is only a short step to ponder the possible courses a river might take. How far might a meander widen with the next monsoon? What might the river be like if a main tributary is captured, claimed by the expansion of some other drainage? These things happen all the geologic time; these are parts of the “lives” of rivers, and things we ourselves might dream of.
In titling his works Boyden often considers parallels, pairs, and dualities. It is in our nature to think in terms of dualities: up versus down, hot versus cold, black versus white. At our worst, such thinking feeds the mindless tyranny of fundamentalism; at our best, it serves as a conceptual tool to describe, with ever-expanding complexity, our knowledge and experience of existence. Trees at the Edge of Day and the edge of Night—Two Halves Create an Absence—Two Fires. In the latter work, entirely different realms and physical states are conjoined by a single element common to both: oxygen. One fire unites the oxidizing effects of heat, air, and organic matter—this is the kind of fire we see and know to fear; the other, with the dendritic and rusty patterns, is the product of a much slower action—that of air, water, and elemental metals to form mineral oxides. Two Fires is a landscape imaged at the earthen interface of sky and stone. It makes visible both the terrestrial world familiar to us and the world of substances and processes beneath our feet, a world we know only obliquely on the evidence of things found in rocky outcrops and road cuts.
Beyond Every Horizon There Is Something Soft transcends a literal interpretation of the place where land and sky meet. Boyden encourages our imagination to entertain, with affection, the infinite possibilities of interface. Whether as a poetic metaphor or a concept abstracted from the sciences, the possible interpretations of horizon are endless. In the cyclic realms of the living world, we might note the soft transpiration of water released at the horizon of a leaf's surface into the surrounding air, one of the many necessary cycles in the lives of trees; horizon might demark the transition from the unknown to the intimate; and at a conceptual extreme, we can look to the “event horizon,” which physicists describe as defining the location of a black hole—a place at the limits of gravity where matter reaches a singularity and time and space, as we know them, cease to exist.
Boyden's imagery and the processes by which he creates his work constitute an exploration of what he refers to as “elemental imagination.” To this end, the artist cultivates an evolving understanding, realized in the work, of his varied imaginational proclivities for primary visual forms—nature's visual archetypes: the line, the circle, the tree … This union of perception and reality has, in essence, a kind of metaphysical horizon line that allows for simultaneous vision: seeing a thing one way, and another, and another. At the same time, the artist displays an understanding of the complex unity of nature and, as if pulled by an inescapable gravity, he is driven to explore our perceptions of it. An awareness of the relatedness of all things, and of the universality of primary images, is thus at the core of Boyden's work. We Looked at the Trees Three Times: a circle given to represent our vision, our sight, light itself.
This essay first appeared in the exhibition pamphlet Meditations on the Breath of Trees. Pendleton, OR: Pendleton Center for the Arts, 2005.