When Gwyneth Scally arrives in Charleston to start setting up her exhibition at Redux Contemporary Art Center, she won't be going straight to the gallery. Instead, she'll be trekking out to the Francis Marion Forest, where she'll gather supplies for a site-specific installation she's setting up in Redux's gallery. "[Francis Marion] is going to set aside some sapling trees for me that they cut down as part of the forest management," Scally says. "What I'm hoping to do is install them upside-down, hanging from the ceiling." If all goes as planned, she says, a sculpted wolf with a realistic fiberglass head and a body made of two-by-fours will stride through the topsy-turvy woods.
This kind of nature-intensive work is typical for Scally, whose paintings, sculptures, and drawings are inspired by the relationship we have to the natural world. She grew up in Washington, D.C., and spent lots of time on the family sailboat in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. As an adult, she's traveled the world, immersing herself in the varied wilderness of different regions from the deserts of Arizona to the misty, rocky shores of Newfoundland.
Although Scally has a deep interest in conservation and ecological issues, they're not her main reason for making art. "I think that my interest is more in how we as a culture conceptualize nature," she says. "We no longer live in nature — we don't hunt our food, or sleep on the forest floor ... as such, we have a different, a romantic understanding of nature. My interest is in how we describe nature to ourselves."
You can see a literal interpretation of our romanticization of the natural world in paintings like the aptly titled "Children of the Romantic Age," which depicts a man and a wolf kissing, or "Evening in the Lost Canyon," which repeats the subject matter of "Romantic Age" but adds two more wolf-human couples.
There's a more subtle idealization at work in Scally's several architectural paintings, which show beautiful, usually modernist, homes in natural settings. In several, the woods are red or orange or yellow, giving the appearance of a forest fire. Similar to the wolf-human couples, Scally gives us an image that plays into our vision of the wilderness as a place or rest or retreat, but quietly undercuts it, showing us just how far removed we are from any true understanding of the wilderness. At the same time, there's a kind of nostalgic sadness to these paintings; no matter how many "natural" homes we build or how hard we try to connect to wild animals, we'll never be able to exist in the wilderness as we once did.
Aside from the installation, which is a major undertaking and may undergo changes as she works with the materials, the exhibition at Redux, titled Wilderness Management, will be fairly small. Those who are familiar with Scally's work will be glad to know that in addition to five or six paintings, she's including several of her hanging jellyfish sculptures, which she began working on in 2005. The jellyfish are huge and ghostly, and seem to swim through the air. Her fascination with them dates back to her time on the water as a child. "There were lots of jellyfish, and you would sometimes get stung by them. They were so beautiful and so repellent, and that kind of dual attraction-repellence really interests me. They became a symbol of that. Also, the fact that they're displaced into a gallery space is always really interesting to me. They're aquatic creatures floating in the gallery, in the air that we breathe."
And maybe that sense of displacement has echoes in Scally's own life — just over a year ago, Scally moved to New York City from the wide open spaces of Arizona. For an artist who draws so deeply on the environment for inspiration, it's strange to be in a man-made landscape. But, like any successful artist, she's finding new ways to find inspiration in the city. "I've been experiencing a lot of nostalgia for that vast Western landscape, but at the same time I've been finding little pieces of it here like in Central Park," she says. "Tiny slices of "wilderness" are taken and put in the city as very special places for people to go and enjoy, but it's all very managed ... I'm very interested in our need for wilderness and the great lengths that we go to stage and create a theater of wilderness. That's a big part of what this exhibition will be about."