In honor of its 85th anniversary, the Henry Art Gallery is displaying two of the most popular works of art from its collection: Winslow Homer's "An Adirondack Lake" (1870) and Wolfgang Laib's "Pollen from Hazelnut" (1995-96). Through May 6, 2012.

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A simple exhibition of two seemingly simple works of art — a modest landscape and a minimal yellow square — opens up a cluster of nuanced, complex interpretations. In honor of its 85th anniversary, the Henry Art Gallery is displaying two of the most popular works of art from its collection: Winslow Homer’s “An Adirondack Lake” (1870) and Wolfgang Laib’s “Pollen from Hazelnut” (1995-96).

The works highlight the range and progression of the Henry’s collection, from Homer’s realistic landscape of the 19th century — a painting the museum describes as “the gem of the art collection Horace C. Henry donated to the University of Washington” — to Laib’s abstract, process-based, alternative-media contemporary installation.

Aside from serving as markers of institutional development, the works demonstrate how art can reveal ongoing and ever-changing relationships between the individual and nature.

For Homer, nature provided a potent reminder of man’s place in the world and an escape from the realities of Reconstruction-era America. After years of working as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, creating eyewitness images of the front lines of the Civil War, Homer turned to immersive scenes of nature, creating hundreds of landscapes and seascapes.

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Homer once said, “The Sun will not rise or set without my notice and thanks,” intimating his observational acuity and his sense of gratitude for the beauty and rhythm of the natural world. While he did create images that speak of nature’s destructive power, many of his paintings evoke tranquillity and harmony. “An Adirondack Lake” offers a clear, warm light that envelops the viewer, along with the solitary outdoorsman in the painting.

Laib, a German artist, also conjures ideas about appreciativeness and immersion but through very different artistic means. During the spring and summer of each year, Laib collects grains of pollen from the trees and flowers around his home in southern Germany and then presents the pollen in jars or sifts it onto the floor, creating square “fields” of reverberating visual power.

When encountering his glowing yellow square at the Henry, I was intensely aware of the material presence of the work but also hit with a collection of associations, from visual and spiritual connections with Native American sand painting and Mark Rothko’s abstract canvases to tactile memories of sifting flour with my fingers.

For Homer and Laib, art springs from an intense focus on the natural world, but Laib is decisively not interested in re-presenting what he sees, what he has called “that which is.” Drawing on his background in medicine and his interests in religious beliefs and philosophies, Laib creates unique physical, sensory experiences that allude to what is within, underneath or beyond physical reality.

Laib’s pollen square and Homer’s painting are cleverly installed directly across from each other in the twin galleries off the lovely old hallway that is a remnant of the Henry’s original building. Each work is by itself in its own gallery, allowing viewers to contemplate the isolated works and to look back and forth between the two.

The figure in Homer’s work is generally believed to be a trapping guide, but some scholars think he might be gathering cranberries, forging yet another connection with Laib’s work. The lone figure and the process of solitary, humble harvesting become metaphors for the way that nature — and art — can prompt us to search for meaning and our place in the world.

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