Tree man

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Plageman dressed in An Owlish Mask and his priestly robes

While waiting for Vox Populi to reopen (it never did; damn), to pass the time, I wandered into Joe Plageman‘s show at Highwire, Nature Works II. Plageman and two buddies were sitting at the windows there, having a bachelor picnic and a chat, and were delighted to see someone come in.

I had received a bunch of emails about this work from Plageman’s friends. They love him and his work dearly. But it’s part of a stream of art-making that I usually don’t give much attention–artist as shaman, engrossed in the magic of the processes involved.

But this exhibit was so intense, so extreme, so sincere, so accomplished in doing what it intended to do that I was won over in spite of my better judgment. It also was heads and shoulders more powerful than Plageman’s previous show at Highwire three years ago (at its previous home on 2nd Street). It did cross my mind that Highwire brings in Plageman when its space needs a ritual resurrection, but I decided I was just being silly.


Temple, by Joe Plageman

The enormous hollowed-out tree stump/shrine at the end of the pathway looked pretty much like a real tree stump at first glance. Not so. It’s one of Plageman’s rubbings on cloth, draped to reflect the undulations of an enormous old tree. Inside he lit a candle in a stream-water-filled bowl.

At the opening, he had people doing their own rubbings using the tree marrow in the bowl at the opposite end of the ceremonial walkway before the temple door.

In the next room are some enormously long, rubbing-based pieces, some of them quite beautiful. All of them are made from natural materials like burnt wood, ferns, tree marrow, and such. There’s a video showing Plageman going through the process of creating the beautiful “Winter Winding Cloth in First Snow,” a sort of remembrance of nature past–rubbings from fallen tree trunks and now melted snows.


detail of the vertical Winter Winding Cloth in First Snow; other works by Joe Plageman behind

Plageman offered to don his priestly garb, and how could I say no? I have a shot of him wearing the priest’s headdress, decorated with mycellium, but he’s a little blurry, so I didn’t post it. Here he is posing in his everyday wear in the Temple.

But my favorite shot is of him wearing “An Owlish Mask” (image at top), which he has hanging at the foot of the ceremonial pathway that leads to the temple. The mask, which is of a great horned owl, also has inscriptions using Leni Lenape signs on the inside.


Plageman poses inside his tree-trunk Temple

In a way, I have to put this work in the same category as some of the intense ink-on-paper mark-making that suggests a religious trance. The work takes me beyond eco art to some sort of mystical union with the trees and nature. It’s so extreme in its practice and product, so far out on Plageman’s own private tree limb where Contemporary might as well not exist, that it seems like outsider work.

I realize there are a lot of people who aspire to this sort of thing, but I have to say Joe Plageman does more than aspire. He is what he makes; he is the soul of his rubbings.

I didn’t mean to like it, but there you go. Plageman went over to the other side of consciousness with this stuff.

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