Trees review

Trees Tenderly Photographed

from The Los Angeles Times, March 7, 2003

by Leah Ollman

Karen Halverson's photographs of California trees at Rose Gallery combine the dignity of aristocratic portraiture with the intimacy of the lover's snapshot. Halverson, who teaches at USC, works large, in color, with taxonomical care, labeling each image according to the tree's type and location.

But she's no member of the Bernd and Hilla Becher school of coolly dispassionate formalists. There's a soul at work here, a radiant tenderness. In these pictures, Halverson revels in a beauty that she claims no credit for but embraces as fundamental.

The photographs (all mounted on aluminum and printed, effectively, edge to edge) fall loosely into two categories: majestic portraits of single trees, focused on form, color, gesture and texture; and images of trees in the context of human habitation.

In the latter, Halverson exercises a light hand, gracefully avoiding easy visual quips. Incongruities between the natural and the artificial play themselves out, sometimes with quiet humor, but not with blanket condemnation of the human-made.

Often odd and interesting formal relationships emerge. An orange post planted next to a pistache tree looks like a color swatch held up to match the tree's confetti of fiery foliage. Bright red mesh wraps like a bandage around the one healthy limb of a Joshua tree, while the other, truncated limb seems more in need of repair.

Rapturous color and light characterize all of the photographs. Halverson shoots in the fleeting warm glow preceding or just following a storm in her picture of a blue oak, the treea wizened anchor against a sky of slate gray. In the neighboring image, light seems to emanate from the golden flowers of a Palo Verde tree blurring in the breeze.

In a stunning trio of photographs, Halverson presents individual portraits of the midsections of three tree trunks. The madrone, on the left, has bark of a soft rose color. The bluegum eucalyptus in the center is smooth as skin and a putty color, blue-gray in the shadows. At right, a valley oak is encrusted in a flaky shell of ocher. As sublime as painter Barnett Newman's stripes, these trees evoke not just primary colors but a beauty of primary significance.