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Jessica Rath: "take me to the apple breeder" at Pasadena Museum of California Art
by christopher michno
Jan 2013

Sisters columnar with difference
Archival pigment print
50" x 37 1/2"
Photo: courtesy of the artist and Jack Hanley

The quest for desirability, as a set of physical characteristics, and the delicate balance between the ethereal, expressed in terms of beauty, and the practical, conveyed by utility, forms the backdrop for "take me to the apple breeder," Jessica Rath's investigation of horticulture as a signifier of taste, aesthetics, and pragmatism. Rath's large photographs and ceramic sculptures explore the ongoing research in plant breeding and the preservation of endangered varieties of fruit at the USDA-ARS Plant Genetic Resources Unit at Cornell University and its Agricultural Experiment Station. With documentary-like directness, Rath's large photographs of apple trees convey scientific detachment combined with the social function of portraiture, in which the LA-based artist communicates the genetic peculiarities--or personalities--of specific apple varieties. Her poetic titles assign anthropomorphic significance to cultivated apple varieties, which inhabit time with a pronounced fragility. Once developed through breeding, a desirable variety must be cloned by grafting buds to a new rootstock, rather than reproducing through seed, which introduces genetic variation with the next generation. Clone weeping with resistance (2012) imparts human theater to the development of a new breed, while Sisters smiling (2012), a photograph of five trees with slightly upturned branches, suggests a family portrait.

The nine high-fire glazed porcelain ceramic sculptures, each representing a rare or endangered apple, convey an abstracted ideal of a particular variety. Arranged on long table-like wood pedestals, they sit as if on a cutting board, ready to be quartered and eaten. Each form somehow suggests the sweetness and the quintessential crunch of a satisfying apple, combined with the visual appeal embodied in Rath's lustrous glazes, from the oddly shaped Kazakhstan Elites (2011), oblong and elliptical, to the Dulcina (2012), with its brightly speckled surface. Each sculpture, then, represents a variety that must be repeatedly cloned in order to be preserved. Rath engages in a conversation about beauty, as much as she investigates the manner in which we preserve biological information or arcane knowledge that is not easily monetized. It is through systematic intervention that horticulture identifies and produces favored varieties of fruit prized for taste, appearance, disease resistance and shelf life, and through neglect or changes in taste or markets that varieties become endangered. In this endless evolution, Rath explores concerns with cultural ideals and the delineation between nature and civilization.

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