On a rainy Thursday afternoon, artist and art critic Mary Hrbacek sat window side at Upper West Side restaurant 107 West. Petite and fair, with delicate features, her silvery-gray curls sprang free from her ponytail, framing her face as she smiled.
Hrbacek has reason to beam through the mist. Her collection of anthropomorphic tree paintings, titled “World Trees,” is on view at 107 West. The space, with modern decor, soothing waterfall wall, and glowing amber spotlights, lends a pleasant atmosphere for her art. The series of paintings are displayed in a way that offers a gradual reveal.
The installation of 24 works, on view through January, is an interplay of art and Hrbacek’s “quiet” environmental activism. Her imagery, figurative representations of trees blown bare to their bark to reveal human features and forms, is a nod to the role art can play in informing ecological discussions.
“I describe my work as nature-inspired pop,” said Hrbacek, in a soft-spoken yet deliberate tone. “I am a quiet activist in the sense that I draw attention in my art to the mysterious and beautiful, evocative and metaphoric details of trees whose limbs and features mirror our own human anatomy.”
Standing with her pieces, Hrbacek describes the work with eager eloquence and punctuates her descriptions with hand gestures for emphasis. It is a teacher-like quality and perhaps a call back to her days as a special education teacher in her home state of Virginia. The trees in the paintings were inspired by actual trees in Riverside Park and Central Park, and other locations throughout the world. Hrbacek lives on W. 98th Street near Riverside Park, a location she cherishes because of the green space close by.
“This one represents the eternal connection of the sexes,” she said, pointing to a painting on her left. The piece, “Seizing Venus,” dominates the canvas with a boldly illustrated hybrid of a tree trunk with representational imagery of a man pursuing a freedom-seeking woman, replete with movement, tentacles and a play on tones and camouflage set against a flat blue background.
The artist’s deep appreciation for trees and the environment started around age 10, when she moved with her family to Stockholm, where they lived in an American embassy community.
“I went to Swedish school and was one of two Americans. I didn’t fit in,” she said, though she embraced life in the city known as the Venice of the North.
“Europe was ahead of the United States in that there was skiing, horseback riding, boating. We would ice-skate and ski on the Baltic Sea,” she recalled.
The city provided Hrbacek with an appreciation of solitude in nature and a respect for the environment.
“The city is zoned-it’s planned. There was no trash. You’re out on these islands alone,” said Hrbacek, who has shown her work at the National Academy Museum, the Tenri Cultural Institute on W. 13th Street, and internationally.
Writer Jonathan Goodman, in his review of Hrbacek’s recent solo show at Creon Gallery for Dart International Magazine, remarked on the challenges of showcasing nature-inspired art in New York. “As strong as these paintings are, Hrbacek’s endeavors exist in a contemporary art world that takes little interest in nature,” he wrote.
Goodman noted the important role artists such as Hrbacek play in maintaining a vision of nature that can be preserved. Ultimately, it is Hrbacek’s vision of the interwoven status of humans and the environment that lends her work its social vision.
“I hope that vision unites [people] more to create bonds with nature and be more aware of the nature that they see every day,” she said.