Jason DeMarte’s Trappings of Arcadia at Denver’s Rule Gallery addresses the clash between nature and artificiality.
Jason DeMarte: Trappings of Arcadia
May 6-June 19, 2021
Rule Gallery, Denver
Seven lushly composed photo assemblages of tropical flora and fauna are on view for the Jason DeMarte solo exhibition Trappings of Arcadia at Rule Gallery in Denver. But there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Interspersed amid the hummingbirds, butterflies, tropical plants, and mountain backdrops that DeMarte captured during trips to Costa Rica are the most curious items: gummy worms, cake jimmies, candy dots, and other signifiers of our addiction to processed sugar. They decorate the hyper-realistic, pastoral tableaux in unexpected places, as if asking the viewer to engage in a hidden-objects game. Some placements almost make sense, as when a gummy worm clings to a vine. Yet for the most part, candies just float, adding wry humor.
DeMarte is a Michigan-based artist and a former commercial photographer. For Arcadia, he studied the work of 19th-century American painter Martin Johnson Heade, who was inspired by the style of the Romantics in capturing flora and fauna from Central and South America. The idyllic scenes became a jumping-off point for DeMarte.
With the modern tools of photography at his disposal, including remote shutters, tripods, and lighting kits, DeMarte went to Costa Rica and came back with immaculate images that boasted every component in sharp focus, thanks to his long hours in the field. Add to that his mastery of photo editing and ability to cull through hundreds of shots per scene—all layered just right to create the assemblages. Arguably, it’s a melding of artistic pursuit and technical prowess in the quest for perfect images of nature.
Of course, nature is not so perfect—flowers wilt, vines wither, and hummingbirds rarely pose. When DeMarte’s compositions purposely include the artificial world as represented in those manmade sugary treats, the effect is to heighten the dissonance between the Arcadian ideal we hope to find in places like Costa Rica and the reality of our highly commodified, industrial world. The seven photo assemblages are incredibly lovely to look at, but they are illusory.
One of the standout pieces is Violet Consequence, in which a vibrantly colored hummingbird is the center of visual interest, sitting still on a branch, while butterfly-shaped gummies “fly” around it. Framing the composition are tropical vines, purple and orange flowers, and more birds, but they contrast with the background—gray skies bearing down on a lone mountain in the distance. The foreboding sky tempers the scene of natural bliss.
Another fine work, again showcasing DeMarte’s attention to detail, is Mystical Detachment, in which the main visual interest is a large, hot pink flower that almost seems to be in conversation with waxy, banana-shaped leaves and hummingbirds toward the corners of the frame. Sugar drops in hot pink and yellow hover over the scene, as if to mitigate the return of the foreboding sky.
Given the compact size of Rule Gallery, it’s easy to feel transported to a faraway place by these fairly large photographs, one of which, Mt. Gems and Gummy Worms, is five feet wide. The gallery has wisely added to the feeling of envelopment by covering a twenty-foot wall from ceiling to floor with a mural called Arcadia, in which a depiction of dense vegetation is laid down in repeating strips of wallpaper. Plus, the installation includes two more DeMarte photographs hanging at either end of the wall.
Trappings of Arcadia challenges our expectations of photographic landscape images. It seduces the viewer with beautifully captured scenes in strong colors and misty lighting to evoke a sense of paradise. Meanwhile, DeMarte’s artful scattering of candy serves as more than a gimmick, equally commanding our attention. It’s the surefire reminder that our sugarcoated consumer culture follows us everywhere, even into the jungle.