WASHINGTON, DC — The everyday organisms of our natural world become mysterious and illusory in the drawings of Beverly Ress. Her most recent works are sketches based on artifacts she observed in natural history and medical museums — including the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, where she was recently an artist-in-residence — then transformed through precise incisions into the paper or careful folds that restructure the original colored pencil sketches. The results reconfigure specimens usually bound to strict institutional taxonomies and lifts them from the specificities of place and time; a dozen of these newly interpreted memento mori, as Ress herself describes them, are on view at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in the exhibition The World Is a Narrow Bridge. Seen together, the manipulated works kindle feelings of fragmentation and fragility that echo the impermanence of all life.
The show’s title itself comes from a saying by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov; in full it translates from Hebrew as, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.” Ress’ works confront the precariousness of the human condition to which Nachman alludes. Set on large, muted sheets of paper, her subjects float in isolation like field drawings, each delicately rendered — then disrupted — and begging close inspection and long observation. At first sight, many usually familiar objects appear as cryptic shapes. One of the most curious drawings on view is “White Line” (2013), which resembles a slender dumbbell with ends composed of amorphous masses. When one moves closer, however, the forms turn out to be a tree knot and a single moth’s wing, connected not by a smooth white line, but rather a cutout of a line gracefully peeled back from the paper’s surface to extend to the hearts of both bark and lepidopteran lobe. The formal echo between the two wing and knot stems from a slight gesture but suggests a fragility that binds all.
This dimensionality emerges in many of Ress’ works, which often hover between drawing and sculpture, with forms springing from the paper. The coils resulting from the carefully cut and woven layers resemble fossils or skeletal fragments, and leave behind enigmatic negative spaces. In “Phantom” (2010), for instance, a precise drawing of a branch seems to blossom into a flower of negative space and then shrivels into a delicate paper shell that extends past the edge of the sheet of paper.
Other works convey fragility and transience through quieter transformations of their surfaces. At times Ress slices the paper and shifts its parts, as in “Lift” (2013), in which the swinging rhythm of the work provides lift to a butterfly with a clipped wing. In “Primary Birds” (2013), a whirlwind of red, blue, and yellow feathers split into concentric circles recalls both flight and destruction. Ress at times integrates such shapes from math and science, introducing an underlying harmony to her works and grounding them in geometric order. In her scrapbook-like examinations of nature and its disturbances, she reminds us of the constants in our seemingly unstable surroundings.