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It’s all about trees at ‘Bark | Bark’ show

John Pearson is a photographer and printmaker; a veteran exhibitor at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking and the annual BirdXBird show. Earl Gutnik is a colorist, designer and collector who had never (until now) exhibited his work.

The two St. Paul artists have not only broken new personal artistic ground with the show “Bark | Bark,” which opened on Saturday and continues through Sept. 6 at the Swan Song Gallery in Maiden Rock, Wis. They’ve also brought a singular expressiveness to the theme of their show — trees and tree bark (not dogs) — that casts new light on how we see nature through the materiality of the past.

Pearson ventures into a new medium for him in this show –that of the old masters, oil paint. Many of his large pictures have the color palette, light saturation and object-as-subject fascination of, say, Georgia O’Keefe (and Pearson readily acknowledges such a comparison). But some of them, like “Forest Stories,” also have a lilting sense of motion, as he de-centralizes and abstracts the idea of “tree” into a jazz-like composition of sensual delight.

Gutnik, for his first show, has rendered trees in old textiles: sections from penny rugs, rag rugs, wool fabric and quilts. His assemblages are simultaneously abstract and representational. Yes, they’re recognizable as trees; textural and leafless. But they also resonate as something more sinister.

The diptych “Tunnels” features elaborate, sinuous embroidery clipped from perhaps a gentleman’s coat collar. The work was inspired, in part Gutnik says, by a walk through the epicenter of the emerald ash borer infestation in South St. Anthony Park, and a close look at the tunnels the borer makes beneath the tree bark, killing the ash.

“Hanging Tree, A Tribute to Billie Holiday” has a small noose stitched to the end of one branch, signifying the horrific uses trees were put to in the past. It’s a shockingly political work, especially next to the inventive “Tree Rings” or the silly “Hillbilly Trees.” Next to Pearson’s exquisitely rendered and meditative oils, at once animated and soothing, Gutnik’s textile assemblages have the raw immediacy of art brut — outsider and unconventional, without being naïve.

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