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Mathilde Roussel, Cheekwood's first artist in residence, takes an unsentimental look at nature, life and death

The Botany of Desire



In mid-March, Mathilde Roussel's giant outdoor sculpture "Homo Arboretum" was installed at Cheekwood. The figure looks like a bodily organ that's growing out of the lawn like a tree, and it's lined with a patchwork of red shirts. Just a day later, Cheekwood officials decided to put a guardrail around it — because children kept hugging it.

But today, the sculpture's huggability seems far less plausible. At this point it's kind of soggy. A mass on its side has sunken in like a beanbag chair, and most of the brightness is gone from the fabric. It's much more like a biological specimen, or an experiment with the elements. In Cheekwood's idyllic landscape, it's an anomaly — which is what makes it so effective.

Roussel is a Paris-based artist who spent two months in Nashville as Cheekwood's first Martin Shallenberger artist in residence, and this is her first solo exhibition in the United States. "Lifes of Grass," a two-piece sculpture of life-sized bodies constructed out of soil that have been covered in wheat grass, is on display in the Courtyard Gallery. On opening weekend the grass had just begun to grow, and it was brilliantly green, like a 3-D Chia Pet version of one of Robert Longo's "Men in the Cities" drawings, belly-up and weightless. Roussel, who is still in her 20s, told me that her work is inspired by dance, specifically the choreography of Raimund Hoghe. That affiliation explains why the bodies look like they've been caught mid-somersault, fluid and graceful. And though they're suspended from the ceiling by wires, the easy connection to clanky marionette puppets seems unthinkable.

But after a few weeks in the gallery, which has large windows but is nonetheless indoors, the grass has begun to wilt and turn brown. The sculptures smell like sweet straw, and wild patches make the forms look like they have a werewolf's matted fur. The grass is overgrown and unkempt, a look more in line with impoverished neighborhoods or the sides of highways than of Cheekwood's manicured lawns. The bodies' midair suspension, Roussel said, references her interest in being in between spaces. That may be true, but this sculpture, with its finite lifespan, seems very firmly grounded in the time and space we share with it. Return visits work almost like a time-lapse video of decaying foliage, or even a body as it decomposes.

"Fertile Landscape," a cluster of white pots that crowds a corner of the gallery floor, is situated near the entrance. The original plan, Roussel said, was to make 200 pots to fill with small bursts of wheat grass, but there wasn't enough time. She made 40 small pots with help from students at Watkins, under the leadership of Ron Lambert. Most were made by hand, but a few were made with the help of a potter's wheel. Those pieces are shiny and almost too perfect, like the unnatural roundness of silicone implants.

Roussel sheepishly agreed to retell a story about the exhibition's opening that a mutual friend had relayed to me. A woman approached her in tears, completely moved by the life force she felt emanating from the small ceramic pots. She thanked the artist, because both of her daughters had breast cancer, and to her, each breast-shaped pot with grass sprouting from its insides was like the promise of regeneration. Roussel was touched.

Equally affecting, however, is how quickly the idea of life can start to look like an idea of death. I wonder how the same woman would respond to the wheat grass as it is now, wildly outgrowing the pots that fit so well a month earlier. With her grass sculptures, Roussel is drawing attention to issues like life and growth, disease and death, but with a lack of sentimentality. She creates a controlled environment for her work, and then leaves it to run its own course.

The slow dissolve of her artwork almost seems like a Trojan horse inside the pristine walls of the Cheekwood estate. The work is about Roussel's perception of what the intersection of human and plant elements looks like. At the exhibition's installation, that intersection looked beautiful. A row of glass jars on slick white columns were etched with the name of a body part, and then filled with that part's plant-based parallel. Sticks are labeled "bones," grass is "hair" and pollen is "sperm." But as time passes, the wildness of the natural world comes out. It is ugly and hard to control. A jar of milk has spoiled and is starting to bubble, a jar of grass has begun to rot. Upon closer inspection, what we perceive to be the beauty of the natural world often involves a lot of human intervention.

Roussel's stay in Nashville culminated with the construction of "Homo Arboretum," which she made with the help of about 30 volunteers. Roussel wanted to honor her time at Cheekwood by creating a piece using materials that are specific to Nashville. Instead of choosing overblown clichés, she decided to use pieces of discarded clothing — a reference to both the presence and absence of its wearers.

There's a subtlety to Roussel's approach that brings her bold figures down to earth. They are organic but still imposing. And apparently — at one time, anyway — they were huggable.


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