the idea that destruction can lead to regeneration

In the galleries: The beauty of nature, in all its horror

April 29, 2016

Mark Jenkins


Fire consumes, but also transmutes, and can clear territory for renewal. Allison Spence didn’t torch anything for “Spread,” but her Hamiltonian Gallery show was inspired by Pando, a Utah forest that benefits from periodic burns. The single-rooted Aspen-tree colony is a vast clonal organism — its name is Latin for “I spread” — thought to be at least 80,000 years old and now at risk of death.

The idea that destruction can lead to regeneration also is a motif of the Japanese horror-comic series about Tomie, a blue-haired femme fatale. She dies regularly, but is always somehow reproduced, also by a sort of cloning. If the extensive Pando is odd yet natural, Tomie is a dark fantasy of fecundity gone amok.

Spence, whose previous Hamiltonian show invoked David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” muses on both the American forest and the Japanese anti-heroine in a video that melds documentary and free association. She’s also displaying two leaves, apparently sacred relics of Pando, and four paintings on linen or fake fur. These have been crumpled, and fixed in their squashed state with resin, so the text and partly representational imagery are distorted.

This is not how nature is usually presented by artists or, for that matter, gardeners. Yet despite her taste for the horror genre, Spence isn’t simply extolling chaos and violence. The beauty of nature, “Spread” seems to be saying, is not elegant forms or appealing colors, but unruly vitality.

Allison Spence: Spread On view through May 7 at Hamiltonian Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, Suite 101. 202-332-1116. hamiltoniangallery.com.

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