Local nature is, put simply, off the hook. In another city, a sculpture exhibition in a city park might involve an elementary hide-and-seek game involving some shrubbery. Rootbound: Heaven and Earth IV at Carkeek Park will get you a workout. You break spiderwebs with your face. You get lost. Your eyes take so long riding up the endless trunks of trees that you're blind-tripping on the roots. If this place spoke, it would only say one word: respect. If you don't know Carkeek, think of the plunging ravines a stone's throw from Lake Washington Boulevard. The moss-coated, rainforesty universes hiding in backyards. Even the hills in the middle of this city, which despite their having been paved over in an attempt at civilizing them, remain obstinately steep enough to bring on a full forehead sweat if you're not used to them—and if you are, your body has its shape because of them.
So on the recent opening day of Rootbound, the fourth annual summer group show organized by the Center on Contemporary Art, it was just more of the same when the weather delivered a morning of horror-movie clouds erupting in a projectile vomit followed by an afternoon of muggy, beating sun. Of course it did. The trails became muddy, grabby, shoe-swallowing thieves. The trees had to laugh. On a second, later visit, the scene was less active but no less impressive. Depending on how you look at it, it is either very easy or very difficult to make art in so vivid a context.
Taken individually, the 19 works of art installed along the two-to-three-mile (very winding) route of Rootbound are not earthmoving. Most are sort of pale; they're okay.
DIY-minded, vaguely environmentally friendly sculptures are common. Suze Woolf's tree trunks wrapped in scarves made of elements such as work gloves are blandly playful. Fox Anthony Spears makes a deflating attempt to connect to a majestic tradition with three unremarkable dream catchers hung from a tree on a lawn. Suzanne Tidwell's modest spirals and chains staked into the ground and covered in white knitting politely invite rust and moss to grow on them. Garry Golightly uses recycled plastic to make chandeliers. Brenda Scallon's Rube Goldbergian musical instruments are neat-looking. But turn the hand crank on any one and no necessary water flows, nothing happens.
In general, the art is not large and loud (or tiny and quiet), clever, charming, or well-made enough to cohabit with or add to the experience of this forceful nature—with some exceptions. There is not much reason for Joe Reno's primitivist assembly of painted sculptures to be in a nature preserve rather than a gallery, but their rawly sketched faces and wildly colored and marked bodies bring an otherwise missing ritual charge to Rootbound. Likewise with Miguel Edwards's welded lightning bolt.
Alan Fulle's well-built but pleasingly ramshackle-looking shelter installed in the corner of a meadow, made of rosy-colored construction materials, looks from a distance like a curved temple with a helicopter rotor; from inside, it turns both social and meditative. Across the meadow, Josho Somine offers your inner child the chance to enter a hollow tree trunk made of cardboard with room for just one person; it makes you want to go back to being the tree in the school play. Lee C. Imonen's tree art is a wooden picket fence that looks attached to a fallen log, but which is actually that same log, half of it carved into the fence shape and half left alone.
At the park's edge is the Salish Sea. Its stony beach is separated from the park by a railroad track, and a chain-link-fenced pedestrian bridge is the path across. Plates of colored and distorted-film-covered acrylic are attached between the chain links on one section of the bridge. You are meant to shoot photographs through these, then send your photos to the artists, Sarah Ferreter and Katherine Wimble, who work under the name The Unearth Collective. Theirs is the only piece in the show actively involved in one of the more powerful forces in nature: the basic human drive to take pictures of places like this. It's too bad their stained-glass-like installation is so small in terms of its surface area (word on the trail was this was because views of the railroad tracks could not be obstructed).
Up in the depths of the park, past the salmon creek, is an orchard of fruit trees. Three sculptures form a pleasant mini-show here. Rebecca Maxim sewed a swollen, hivelike heart made of leaves around the terminal joint of two tree limbs. Its plump but fragile postsurgical state is apparent even from afar. Tiki Mulvihill grafted copper pipes to branches lying on their sides, and the metal fingers seem to want to reach back down into the ground and grow up something mutant. Cameron Anne Mason and Lara McIntosh wove a stand of trees together with a cat's cradle of silk dyed orange and red. A "room" is created; performances are scheduled (July 21, Aug 11, Sept 15, Oct 20).
Even the successful pieces are mildly so, but maybe it's all part of being unassuming. Whatever the case, the show is advertised as a helpful reminder of an outlying but spectacular park to taxpaying citizens in these budget-cutting times—and that, it is. The park was meant to be the vehicle for the art, but it's really the other way around.