Liz Ward: The Present of Past Things

Catalogue Essay, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1998

By Lynn M. Herbert

“The present of past things is the memory.” St. Augustine came to this conclusion in his Confessions, a work that grapples with a number of profound philosophical and theological concepts, including the nature of time. His inquiry led him to conclude that the past and the future don’t actually exist—rather, they exist only in our minds. According to St. Augustine, “The present of past things is the memory; the present of present things is direct perception; and the present of future things is expectation.” Fascinated by the vast breadth of memory, he wrote that it “…is like a great field or spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds….” Liz Ward’s works presented in this exhibition explore that great field, that present of past things, memory.
Memory is defined as a ceremony of commemoration, a historical or biographical record, a trace of something known or experienced. Through the years, it has appeared in all of these guises in Ward’s work. She has used ecology and the natural sciences as points of departure from which to explore the passage of time and the accompanying sense of loss, both environmental and personal. Her work incorporated such specific natural phenomena as plant forms, bird migrations, weather, stars, and maps, as well as manmade contributions to the equation including circular saw blades, formal garden designs, and trophy mounts. Over time she has begun to break away from what she felt was becoming an environmental rubric. As evidenced in this new work, natural science is still the visual stepping-off point, but the end result is more abstract, seductive, and poetic.
The change for Ward began with a work entitled Genealogy (1989), made from the cross-section of a tree that had been transformed into a kitchen chopping block. Intrigued by the system of concentric tree rings and their testament to the passage of time, Ward labeled specific rings using small metal plates, each one etched with a year, transposing important dates from her own genealogy onto the tree’s history.
Inspired by the visual and metaphorical potential of the rings, Ward embarked on a series of works based on dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) and other patterns in nature. She found herself letting go, abandoning her previous use of found objects and direct representation in favor of a new, more abstract style. Throughout her career, Ward has explored a variety of media, looking for what best suits the work. In this new body of work, her ideas led her to time-honored, traditional artistic tools: silver-point drawing, etching, painting and watercolor.
She began with a series of drawings in silver point, a technique invented in the fifteenth century and more closely associated with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Raphael, and Rembrandt than with contemporary art. Ward’s training as a printmaker was influential in this decision, having instilled in her a disciplined and patient working style as well as an appreciation for the quality of the etched line. While looking at Old Master drawings, she became interested in silver-point drawings, which seemed to have the same integrity as an etched line. A silver-point drawing is made using a sharpened silver rod (instead of, say, lead) and requires an abrasive drawing surface or ground, such as gesso; otherwise, it won’t leave a line. She was intrigued by the play between variously colored grounds and the painstaking precision and subtlety of the silver-point line cutting through that ground.
In Sylvan (1994) and The Crystal Basin (1995), Ward applies a discrete ground of tinted gesso onto an otherwise exposed wood panel. On the gessoed surface, she drew intricate systems of concentric lines, reminiscent of a tree’s rings in one and of a geological map in the other. The mass of the panels and their assertive grain contrast with the ethereal color of Ward’s gesso and the delicate, almost imperceptible line of the silver point. Viewers find themselves drawn in closer and closer until they are enveloped by the image.
Ward also created a series of silver-point drawings on paper. The connection between support and subject is still present: paper, too, is made from natural materials, but in a more subtle way. In Grove, Magnolia, Roseate, Wood in Wind, and Knock, Knock (all 1994, pp.4, 5), Ward created multilayered grounds that exhibit a subtly changing color similar to that found in nature—for instance, on the surface of a sunlit stream or in the wavering reflective light of fish scales. On top of these animated fields rests the quiet but certain line of Ward’s silver point. Drawing with silver point is in many ways like a tour-de-force performance: it demands a certain state of mind on the part of the artist. Because the fine point of the silver requires the “tooth” of the gesso to make an impression, one can’t make mistakes; a line cannot be erased without reapplying the ground. With their seemingly endless concentric lines emanating from the center, these drawings become essentially self-reflective: the artist must approach a meditative state in order to make them, and for the viewer, gazing at them induces a similarly contemplative condition.
Two later silver-point drawings with shell names for titles, Limpet and Baby’s Ear (both 1998, pp. 14, 15), allude to the patterns of accretion found on seashells, the layers and layers of calcium that fan out or curve into a spiral. The link between nature and mathematics is particularly apparent in these two works. Spiral shells demonstrate the mathematical principal called the Fibonacci sequence: a sequence of numbers created by adding the last two numbers to get the next one. As in the earlier silver points, the repetition of lines in Limpet and Baby’s Ear creates a sense of inevitability reminiscent of that found in the open cube works of Sol LeWitt; Ward, however, includes the added dimension of curves. The lines are precise and yet delicate, with an elusive quality one also finds in the graphite lines on an Agnes Martin painting. In silver points, the trace is especially like memory in that it isn’t fixed: over time, the silver oxidizes and tarnishes, altering the color of the line.
Ward made a suite of etchings, Dendrochronologies (1995), based on the five silver-point drawings related to trees (frontispiece). The etchings are smaller in scale, and the animated play between figure and ground here gives way to a more concentrated, analytical look at the systems of concentric lines inspired by nature. The lines themselves take on a new “vibrato”-like character as the ink spills over the edges of the etched line. Those “feathered” lines appear again in another suite of small-scaled works, a group of diptychs in oil on wood (front and back cover). In these works, Ward has moved in closer to her subject matter, painting isolated close-ups of patterns inspired by tree rings. Their irregular patterns remind us that in the cycle of life, trees—like people—have good years and bad, as well as the inevitable interruptions. They also remind us that in nature one finds no straight lines; life is not governed by the regular mechanical ticking of a clock, but instead is full of twists and turns. Seen side by side, it is only natural to want to connect the lines from one panel to the next, but Ward reminds us that that is not nature’s way.
In From Then to Now (1995), Ward presents us with four wooden panels hung vertically side by side, each presenting an isolated section of a tree’s ring pattern. In each one, the rings emanate from a central core much like the sun’s light, and they seem to extend upward as naturally as heat rises. The color choice (green ground and brown lines) shows a continued link and respect for the source. In the next group of large-scale paintings, though, Ward turned things around literally as well as figuratively.
Conversing About Beautiful Mountains and Rivers (1997-98) is a series of four paintings on 1 x 8 foot panels (title page, pp.8-13). The title refers to an ancient Chinese stone carving recently dynamited to make room for what will be the world’s largest dam, currently under construction in central China. Ward is sensitive to the irony and cultural tragedy inherent in China’s efforts to right its environmental wrongs. She chose this unusual 1 x 8 foot format because it is a standard lumber size (a reminder of how our forests are used) and also because it would allow her to create works on a monumental scale.
Not only are the color combinations in these epic paintings further removed from nature, but the patterns are as well. The lines were still meticulously applied and feathered, but Ward took more liberties with the patterns; their source is more ambiguous. And yet we find ourselves seeking possible touchstones, such as the lines found in a halved artichoke or the swaying curves of wheat bending in the wind. The epic horizontal format induces reflection in a way similar to nature’s epic horizontal line, the earth’s horizon. The format is also suggestive of timelines and Chinese scrolls, inviting viewers to walk alongside the works and become absorbed in the narrative potential presented by the succession of lines and evolving patterns.
Concurrently with these epic paintings on wood, Ward began a series of large-scale watercolors on paper (pp. 6-7). Because tree rings are created by water moving in and out of cells, watercolor was a natural choice of media both visually and conceptually. In these “pools” and “mandalas,” as Ward calls them, the artist has relinquished control, allowing the medium itself to take a greater hand in defining the patterns. In his Codex Leicester, da Vinci examined the nature and movement of water, then documented his experiments and observations. That same marriage of art and science is apparent in Ward’s watercolors. Water is allowed to do its natural thing: it responds to the paper and moves about, leaving pools and deposits of color-filled sediment here and there. The medium becomes the message, and the resulting works are a testament to the consilience between science and the humanities. At one end of the spectrum, the pools and mandalas can be read as microscopic organisms; on the other, they symbolize the entire universe.
Starting with the patterns found in tree rings, Ward has created a body of new works in multiple media that take us into the realm of “metapatterns” or patterns of patterns. Information and facts gleaned from one area of thought find accord in others. The tree ring patterns lead to patterns of circles, to cycles of life, to the passage of time, to beginnings and ends, to birth and death, and to loss. Ward has thus bridged biology, ecology, mathematics, psychology, art history, and more. In his book on consilience and the unity of knowledge, Edward O. Wilson notes, “The strongest appeal of consilience is in the prospect of intellectual adventure and, given even modest success, the value of understanding the human condition with a higher degree of certainty.”
In an age of “whatever,” when less and less attention is being paid to details or to craft, Ward is an anomaly. This new collection of works, like a poem, thrives on the attention to detail. Created line by line, each work takes a great deal of time to realize, and that element of time is important to Ward. Her drawn, etched and painted “timelines” involve building up something from nothing, creating a meticulous record, and exploring the many levels of memory. Though inspired by nature, these patterns of lines are, as Ward has explained, “overlaid with personal issues of transition, love, and loss.” By addressing her memories thus, Ward allows us to examine our own. And, in the words of St. Augustine, memory is “a vast, immeasurable sanctuary.”

1 St. Augustine, Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), p. 269.
2 Ibid., p. 269.
3 Ibid., p. 214.
4 Ward included the years of births and deaths in her family.
5 Leonardo Fibonacci was a thirteenth-century mathematician who discovered the Fibonacci sequence in
which each number (after the second) is the sum of the two preceding numbers (1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 …).
Nineteenth-century scientists discovered the presence of this sequence in nature in the spirals of pinecones,
animal horns, sunflower heads, beehives, and shells.
6 Dendrochronology journals present the details of tree rings in this same elongated format.
7 Patrick E. Tyler, “Chinese Dam’s Forbidding Future Dooms Rich Past,” The New York Times, October 6,
1996, pp. 1, 8. Industrialization led to a massive migration of Chinese people to the environs of the river,
which in turn led to the deforestation of the region which exacerbated the problem of flooding in the area.
8 Trevor Fairbrother and Chiyo Ishikawa, Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci’s
Legacy of Art and Science (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Washington
Press, 1997), p. 14.
9 Mandalas have historically served as graphic symbols of the universe.
See Tyler Volk’s Metapatterns Across Space, Time and Mind (New 10 York: Columbia University Press,
1995).
11 Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), p. 9.
12 From a written artist’s statement, March 1997.
13 St. Augustine, p. 216.