by Len Lear
You might say that artist Richard Metz, who has been showing work in the Philadelphia and New York areas and beyond for more than 35 years, has a lot of bark in his stunning artwork. He probably supports merchants who offer “buy one, get one tree” specials. (A native of Abington, Metz has lived in Erdenheim for the last 18 years.)
That is because while most other artists paint with oil, watercolors, etc., on canvas, walls, paper, even on the sides of buildings, Metz, 59, has frequently painted primitive images on old trees. Starting Sunday, Sept, 23, Metz will have a unique indoor/outdoor exhibit of his work on display at Awbury Arboretum in Germantown. There will be 15 paintings on paper until the end of November, and the tree paintings will be there for several months as they slowly fade away.
“Art on trees is intended to be a subversive gesture, to create work that can challenge the reactionary bent of the art world,” said Metz in an earlier interview as he walked with a Chestnut Hill Local reporter among trees he had painted. The light reflecting through the trees played a fine contrast against the colors of autumn and Metz’s intentional “childish creatures.”
When he started doing tree paintings, Metz, who has taught art at Abington High School for 27 years, snuck into the woods in eastern Montgomery County and used colors he mixed himself. His goal was to “get closer to the process” used by the old masters he had “read so much about in art history books.” So he began using substances like ground charcoal, indigo (made from crushed indigo plants) or the spice turmeric (for a yellow tint) with eggs to create a colored liquid substance that would bind to the rough, barky surface.
“The tree paintings are created to be strong, coherent environmental works,” Metz said in an interview last week. “They’re meant to be seen in nature, work with nature and lead the viewer to re-imagine a closer, more mysterious relationship with nature. But I have so many ideas that can’t be created on trees that I needed to use small paper as the simplest surface to get my ideas down. Paper is and has been a traditional medium of watercolor and gouache, and it is very easy to work with. While trees provide a challenging surface that sets up restrictions, the paper works provide no restrictions, and my imagination can further develop its breath.”
By the way, those who may think that Metz’ tree art is defacing nature should know that since they are made with pigments and eggs, the images decay and decompose within six to 12 months. The use of the eggs as a binder is strong enough to preserve the work for several months, but then they begin to gradually fade away and finally deteriorate altogether. Metz’ work is anti-materialist and anti-consumerist and to some extent a compelling critique of the function of art as a commodity. It is not possible to own these works of art.
Metz has richly earned his reputation as a maverick in the art world. In 2007, for example, he wrote: “Today, in the art world, especially in New York, sometimes stunning visual art can be purchased for great sums of money. The titans of industry and finance destroy others and the environment to attain their wealth. Then they can purchase not only beautiful art works but the art world’s praise as a benefactor. The art world thus becomes complicit in the destruction of our society and our planet.”
For years Metz has grappled with the issue of how an artist can be true to himself and his vision without selling out and yet still make a decent living.
“If one studies the Renaissance,” he told us, “it is obvious that the powerful gilded their image with the works of great artists as they engaged in terrible deeds. Today it is even more apparent. For example, the Koch brothers have financed the fountain outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York while making billions in the energy industry, denying climate change and financing politicians who advance their agenda. Yet another example would be Exxon/Mobil’s support for PBS while continuing to destroy the climate.”
Metz, who received a Masters in Fine Art from the Maine College of Art in 2000, in addition to his tree art has spent a great deal of time in the woods gathering and identifying leaves, seed pods and plant roots and using these items both directly and pictorially in his studio work. He said it is one way to enjoy and further his knowledge about the properties and balances of our ecosystem. He said the goal of his radical tree art is to embody what might be the spirits of the forests and fields he has wandered through.
“They are not like conventional nature works,” he said, “but more icons or drawings. The style comes from my love and study of expressionist woodcuts, alternative comics and the strange otherworldly shapes of the plants themselves. These works express my connection with the natural world … Many of the images are taken from photos I took at Awbury Arboretum. The woods become a stage where my mind can play, imagine and dream what might take place there. I can envision interactions that might take place between the forest and animals who live there.”
If Metz, who believes the old saying that “good things come in trees,” could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, living or dead, who would it be? “Well,” he replied, “there are a few people that I have obsessed about meeting. Van Gogh, of course, to hang out and talk and paint together, and well, I know I couldn’t help him really, but I would try.
“Sometimes I’d like to say a few more words to my dad. My great-grandfather also because I wonder what his life in Russia was like. I would like to walk around Florence with Michelangelo and hang out while he carved. And I know it’s silly, but I would love to have sat in on a class with the writer David Foster Wallace because his books inspired me to write more.”
More information at www.mistermetz.com, www.awbury.org or 215849-2855. On Sept. 23, from 3-5 p.m., the public is invited to hear how the pieces came together during Metz’s talk in Awbury’s Cope House parlor. Admission is free, and no registration is required. Now over 100 years old, Awbury Arboretum is an extraordinary 55 acres of green space. You can reach Len Lear at email@example.com