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MAG’s timely 'In Praise of Trees' is perfect for the holiday season

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For many people, especially those who celebrate Christmas, December is a month for getting up close and personal with trees. Some families visit expansive tree farms to choose one with the perfect height, fullness, texture, and durability to bring home for the holiday.

But even then, do they really stop to admire the natural qualities of trees or ask what they tell us about nature and ourselves?

That’s exactly what the new Memorial Art Gallery exhibition, “In Praise of Trees: Woodcuts by Naoko Matsubara” — on view from Dec. 9 through May 21 — urges visitors to ponder.

Naoko Matsubara's "Pine," 1985. - IMAGE PROVIDED
  • IMAGE PROVIDED
  • Naoko Matsubara's "Pine," 1985.
Japanese-Canadian artist Naoko Matsubara’s printmaking with woodcuts, in which blocks of wood are carved into intricate images, is both entirely appropriate and savagely ironic.

The paradoxical link between death and creation, and between strength and fragility, is also present in the MAG exhibition’s 34 woodcuts, which curator Nancy Norwood selected from the artist’s 1985 portfolio “In Praise of Trees.” The portfolio was gifted to the MAG in 2018 by Annabelle Martin.

“She’s seeing the spiritual as well as the physical qualities of wood,” Norwood said of Matsubara.

The artist’s attention to detail, particularly in the abstract and almost unnatural shapes of small branches and foliage — made by the negative white space in the woodcut — creates the illusion of trees rustling. Matsubara’s use of printmaking to articulate the wide variety of textures that trees possess is a testament to her skill as a woodcut artist.

In “Plum Blossom” and “Cherry,” Matsubara’s monochromatic depictions are made all the more brilliant by the contrast between the trees’ dark trunks and their lighter flowers.

"Cedar Hill" by Naoko Matsubara, 1985. - IMAGE PROVIDED
  • IMAGE PROVIDED
  • "Cedar Hill" by Naoko Matsubara, 1985.
Three color woodcuts on Japanese mulberry paper — the ethereal “Mountain Trees” in particular — provide a wonderful change of pace.

But Matsubara’s images of trees are not always serene. In “Winter Forest,” contorted, shrunken limbs convey sorrow. The shapes suggest that the trees, despite their muscular root systems, are susceptible to the unseen power of the wind.

Elsewhere, it’s Matsubara’s choice of perspective that helps communicate the strength of her silent subjects. The from-the-ground-up vantage points of “Redwood” and “Pine” make the prints powerful testaments to the longevity and resilience of trees, and the frailty of humanity in comparison. For more information, go to mag.rochester.edu.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY's arts editor. He can be reached at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.