Edward Fausty exhibition at Watchung Arts Center evokes the beauty, and terror, of nature

by TRIS McCALL
Edward Fausty review

Edward Fausty’s “Desperation” is part of his “Refuge” exhibition at The Watchung Arts Center.

“The COVID virus is the Lord.” So sings Paul Simon — several times — on Seven Psalms, his bleak 2023 album. That’s not just typical Simon-ish irreverence: It’s an acknowledgment that the virus is a living thing, and thus part of the ground of being. Over the past four years, we have experienced the evolution of our invisible adversary in real time. We have been in a dialogue with COVID since the very beginning of the crisis, altering our approach to the virus as it changes its approach to us.

One reasonable response to this dance was to try to dodge the spike protein altogether. In the early days of the pandemic, those with the means headed to country houses, remote beaches, cabins in the woods. If the city was where the virus was, it followed that the forest was where it wasn’t. For the masterful Garden State photographer Edward Fausty, who is well known for his lyrical shots of factories and bridges, the woods near his hometown of Boonton might have felt like an escape. Until it didn’t.

“Refuge,” now on view at the Watchung Arts Center, is, like all of Fausty’s projects, beautiful to behold. It is also quite pointed. The show makes a clever comment on the impossibility of disengagement from the web of life and the chain of happenstance. It reinforces what many of us learned the hard way. No matter how deep in the wilderness you go, you can’t get away from the scary state of the world.

Edward Fausty’s “Alternative Lifestyles.”

Fausty sees the woods through civilized eyes. His wilderness is colorful, dense and wild, but it is also visually navigable. He never seems lost: The photographs in “Refuge” sometimes feel so deliberate it’s as if the trees have agreed to be staged. In “Alternative Lifestyles,” a piece saturated with early-spring verdancy, the trunks bend artfully in all directions, catching the light, beckoning the viewer along a trail, holding up a canopy of leaves. Though the camera takes us to the middle of nowhere, there is an unmistakable sense of buoyancy to the shot and the mood it evokes. The photographer is at a distance from the metropolis, but he is in no way stranded. He knows exactly where he is.

We know this from the curious way in which the photograph is presented. Instead of laying it flat in a frame or on a hanging piece of paper, he has given it a spine by folding it in the middle and bending the two halves slightly so they arch a bit. In effect, he’s summoned a couple of facing pages out of a single photograph, and laid his centerfold in the middle of a larger canvas, like a Bible open on a grand pedestal. This trick imparts a sculptural element to “Refuge” that is uncommon for photography exhibitions (and, for that matter, prior Fausty shows) and it allows the pieces in the show to catch and refract the gallery light in strange and destabilizing ways.

So much you might expect from an artist with a deep appreciation for the operations of the physical world. But the treatment of these outdoor shots also underscores Fausty’s theme. A book is not merely a man-made thing. It is one of the things that man makes to secure his mastery over the natural. Books are repositories for personal visions. They are where the scientist — and the nature journalist — record their impressions of what they have seen in the wild in order to understand it and bring it under control. Fausty’s refuge-seeking rambler in the forest isn’t there to lose himself in the greenery. He is analyzing his wild surroundings and taking it down to the size of a page in order to get a handle on it, which is, after all, a very human thing to do.

Edward Fausty’s “Nature.”

But behind the pretty shots of the forest, other, more threatening signals are pulsing, crackling and hissing. In “Nature,” a cozy, deep-winter centerfold shot of fallen logs asleep under a slipcover of fresh snow rests atop another image: a tornadic column of capital letters in light gray, thick and inexorable, superimposed over each other in a sequence impossible to follow or even understand. These letters can’t be read, but they sure seem to mean business. As it turns out, it is Fausty’s careful replication of the chemical imprint of the specific protein that has granted SARS-Cov2 the keys to our bodies. There it hovers, illegible and un-dispellable, deeply foreign, a cloud of suspicion framing an idyll.

Which, then, is the real depiction of “Nature”? Is it the photo of the trees and rocks and craggy comforts as seen by the human who takes to the woods to find a safe place for himself, or is it the alphabetical splatter of the microscopic particle that is so terrifyingly and so weirdly alive? The answer, of course, is that they both are. But ironically, the inscrutability of the virus sequence gives it an edge. The torrent of letters feels closer to nature as it truly is: mutable, inhospitable, mind-frying, often lethal, and rarely easy for the acculturated to access.

Edward Fausty’s “Dark Chapter.”

Those letters reoccur all over this show, thickening and proliferating, threatening to impinge upon any refuge we think we’re setting up for ourselves. Finally, in a chilling series of recent pieces, they jump the barrier between the book and its background. In “Dark Chapter” (Fausty has a wry sense of humor), the twin pages are saturated with the letters of the COVID protein sequence. The book has turned a charcoal gray, and Fausty has managed to get the pages to evoke the transient quality of a shadow. “Chapter” hangs right above the scariest piece in an unsettling show — the inevitable canvas where nothing but the letters remain. Even the pages are gone, flattened and pinned by something more relentless than human intelligence.

And if the COVID doesn’t get us, our own ecological carelessness might. Elsewhere in “Refuge,” Fausty rests his book-shaped outdoor photographs on other backdrops that don’t have much to do with the pandemic. “Desperation” (see above) graces a map of the frightening surface anomaly temperature in the Northern Hemisphere with a folded shot of shrubs and mosses. “Biodegradable” does something similar with an oceanic map of oil drilling. We can retreat to castles in the woods, pull up our drawbridges and limit our visions to that which we can control, but the planet is going to go on burning around us. In “Refuge,” Fausty makes the same recommendation to us that he always has: He wants us to keep looking at the world, even when that’s a hard thing to do.

For instance, at Watchung Arts Gallery, there is another tough and haunting but rewarding thing to see. The adversary in Laura Lou Levy’s “House of the Sun” exhibition is a different affliction, and one that is even scarier than COVID-19 and its variants: early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Levy’s sister was diagnosed with it at the shocking age of 57, and is currently living as best as she can in a nursing home in a palm tree-dotted precinct of Israel. This story is captured in brutal but beautiful detail in a film that plays on a loop in the middle of the downstairs gallery.

Laura Lou Levy’s “Shadow 1.”

But even without the explanatory movie, I’d reckon you’d get what was going on here from Levy’s aching, fragile charcoal and pastel drawings of palm trees and flowers, which pull apart, mingle, spark and fray like overloaded neural networks. In “Shadow 1,” a few filaments stretch across a yawning black hole that seems to be tearing at the fibrous surface of the leaves. “Shadow 5” juxtaposes the silhouette of a human being with a crosshatch of fronds from palm trees that appear to be unraveling. A single red thread tethers the spectral body to the material world — and also to a long strand of empty bubbles that rise with a dark effervescence to the corners of the paper.

These are, from a distance, lovely and immersive drawings. But if you’ve had any experience at all with Alzheimer’s, dementia or any other memory-affecting cognitive impairments (including long COVID) you will immediately recognize these works for what they are: a chronicle of a woman’s desperate attempt to figure out what is happening to a beloved sibling, and to reach her through the growing static and the fraying of the ties that bind.

Levy and Fausty will both be present at the Watchung Arts Center, March 3 from 2 to 4 p.m. for an artists talk, and while it is true that you’ve got to be heartbroken to make work as unflinching as this, they will go easy on you. Ferocious as their shows are, they are both warm, generous people with plenty of interesting things to say about art, and the peculiar experience of being a person in a time as bizarre as 2024.

The Watchung Arts Center will present “Edward Fausty: Refuge” and “Laura Lou Levy: House of the Sun” through March 24; visit watchungarts.org.

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