CHICAGO — Several didactic signs line the walls of Stella Brown’s “Rezkoville Visitor’s Center” (2017), a wooden tri-walled structure situated in the back left corner of Goldfinch’s exhibition Marginal Green. Each sign is written to inform the viewer about the plants, birds, or assorted detritus one might have found while exploring the area’s 62 acres on the Chicago River’s east bank — an overgrown post-industrial patch nicknamed for its previous owner, Antoin “Tony” Rezko, which was razed for residential and commercial development in late 2016. Like the rest of the artworks in the exhibition, this installation pays homage to the species that manage to thrive on the outskirts of American cities’ concrete plots. Works by Ellie Irons, Jenny Kendler, and Jaclyn Jacunski also attempt to reposition peripheral plants within a centralized narrative, their work focused on how the plants’ systems are entangled, both socially and environmentally, with our own.
Irons, who previously spoke to Hyperallergic about her practice, demonstrates the resilience and ingenuity of these marginal species, charting invasive plants like Asiatic dayflower and pokeweed through their migration both into and out of the US. In her work “Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis)” (2012), she tracks the introduction of the flower to the US from China following the Columbian Exchange and observes how the plant’s evolution is specifically intertwined with human systems. A map illustrates the flower’s movement, colored with pigment extracted from the plant’s own petals. This is a technique the artist also utilizes in “Invasive Pigments Grid, New York, NY” (2016), in which colorful dot matrices fill a pair of plexiglass squares, each containing round samples of plant pigments that appear like a cross between a microscopic sampling and a watercolor swatch.
Two garden boxes, one large, the other small, lay at the center of the exhibition, attached to the front wall by thick lengths of salvaged arborists’ ropes. Jenny Kendler’s “Study for Garden for a Changing Climate” (2017) will incrementally shift toward the north end of the gallery during the course of the exhibition. Kendler’s intention is for the wheeled boxes to physically demonstrate the way global warming disrupts species’ natural growth patterns, moving from south to north. The reclaimed planters contain a lush variety of plants relocated from the gallery’s East Garfield Park neighborhood, an area that is home to many abandoned lots overgrown with grasses. Kendler glorifies the collected species as garden inhabitants rather than eyesores or nuisances, as well as imagines a futuristic landscape design in which stubborn weeds and other marginal plants are the only flora we have left.
Jaclyn Jacunski also sources from the neighborhood for her works, which fill the gallery’s back room. In perhaps her most direct piece, a camera obscura softly projects the surrounding landscape onto the walls of a dark, makeshift room. Although I appreciate the attempt to recast the overgrown outside environment within, her other works present a more physical embodiment of this directive, like her aesthetically minimal, thoughtfully composed series “Colorfields” (2017), which presents six brown pieces of paper produced from native prairie plants collected from polluted plots across Chicago, dyed with inks made from the soil of the matching site. Jacunski marks the transformed plants with large swatches of original sediment, reintroducing the toxins that contaminated their roots.
Similar plants compose her woven floor piece “Body Tracks” (2017), which lies on the opposite side of the gallery. One must walk across this braided mat to read the fine handwriting scrawled across “Margins, Borders, Lines” (2017), passages pulled from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 article “The Case for Reparations,” which, among other subjects, speaks about redlining in Chicago neighborhoods, specifically Garfield Park. The text is nearly impossible to read, even up close, but the juxtaposition of these quotes and the scattered red lines on locally sourced materials directly addresses the social nature of this specific marginalized landscape.
Like Jacunski, Brown’s installation addresses the social implications of marginalized spaces — how they are both created and, more quickly, commodified. Once home to house sparrows, chickadees, sunflowers, wild parsnip, and a section of the city’s homeless, Rezkoville is now a stripped landmass with a 15-year plan to build expensive condos and high-end retail. Cleared of its overgrowth and temporary occupants, the plot will return to its previous position as a piece of profitable urban infrastructure, demonstrating that perhaps the only thing more resilient than native plants is our need to destroy them.
Marginal Green continues at Goldfinch (319 N. Albany, East Garfield Park) through July 22.