Shift at The NWBLK

Studio Shot No. 4, 2014

Mary Button Durell , Studio Shot No. 4, 2014

“Organic” is a word we hear so often these days. Technically meaning any molecular chain with carbon in it, it has come to be a synonym for “natural,” with the added qualifier of purification standards in the case of food or other commodity goods. More figuratively, organic means something with a wholeness, an integrity, or a universality to it. Like nature is a full and complete system covering the globe, things that “grow organically” have their own inherent logic, and end up comprising a certain total, positive, unity. 

But nature is actually nothing of the sort. It isn’t pure, whole, or integral. Nature is constantly broken, poisonous, shattered, half-dead, rotting, infected, and eroding. It is possible that a portion of nature may maintain a momentary balance. Like a natural bridge, which the wind carved over thousands of years, leaving a smooth arc of stone suspended over a precipitous drop with nothing more than its own strength to support it. But, then there is frost expansion. There is sheering. There is erosion, plant roots, and animal life running over it, desperate to maintain checks and balances within their own vital accounting. And suddenly, then the arch gives way, plunging thousands of tons of stone to the bottom of the canyon in a accelerated rush of activity, destroying the thousands and millions of years of stability.

Tunnel, 1999. 30 x 48 x 24 in.

Mary Button Durell, Tunnel, 1999. 30 x 48 x 24 in.

There is something within humanity that appreciates this natural aesthetic… naturally, one might say. We have a fascination with piles of stones, with lone icebergs on the open sea, with fallen trees overcome by moss and mushrooms, with the holes a woodpecker beats into a pine. Even if it is broken, derelict, rotting, and dead, we can appreciate the way that nature looks in its natural state.

Mary Button Durell’s sculpture work–currently shown as part of the show Shift at The NWBLK in San Francisco through December 15, curated by Heather Marx–captures this real natural aesthetic. Her work is made only from paper and wheat paste, from but from these simple ingredients, Durell builds vast structures of delicate intimacy, and expansive scale.

Mary Durell  Sculpture

Mary Button Durell, Neon Burn (Detail), 2012. 45 x 32 x 4 in.

Viewing them as analogous to natural forms is easy enough. They appear like honeycombs, or the nests of paper wasps. Other works look like sedimentary stones, cellular membranes, microscopic depictions of cellulose, nerve fibers, molds and lichens, fossils, and sea shells. But it is not just what Durell’s work “appears like” that invests it with this natural aesthetic. It is her process that shows through the work. She works slowly, building up the paper and paste in layers, seeing how the translucency of the materials and the overall shape evolves. Looking at her work, I could easily imagine that there are any number of possible similar pieces that are not as stunning. There are the fallen arches, the crushed flowers, and the collapsed trees out there somewhere in the organic world of her aesthetic, but they have been weeded out of potential existence through her artistry, her skilled hand and careful eye, until only those magnificent examples are left. Like woven spiderwebs caught with just the right amount of dew, the arcs of a river’s oxbows set at just the right curve, Durell’s works seem to be that startling sort of natural perfection. Suspended in front of light, showing a range of different translucencies, textures ranging from smooth to rough, structures both fine and delicate, as well as those that are firm and sturdy—the vast variations of nature exemplary systemics are present in these works, encapsulating the same epochal distance found in the sands of a beach, compressed into stone, and then broken loose and pummeled by waves, reduced to individual grains once again.

It is this sort of natural work, which might captivate us in contemporary times, often so overwhelmed with anti-natural aesthetics. Because, in this sense of the organic, we can see the beauty of life in frailty, and the vitality of accumulated effort. Against the minimalism of bezel-enclosed design, and the false totality of our over-conditioned technophilia, artists like Durell remind us that for all our species’ accomplishments, we are ourselves only as unique as a natural bridge, our beauty embodied in the random chance of our headlong progress towards eventual collapse.

By Adam Rothstein

One response

  1. Hello, I would like to let everyone know about a new opportunity for a residency and eco-art project in Taiwan at the National Museum of Marine Science & Technology. The focus is on interactive sculpture installations about ocean sustainability. For more information email me at
    Proposal deadline is Feb. 15, 2015; selected artists receive stipend of $2000, airfare, accommodation, meals.

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