If you were to plant a seed from an apple bought at the supermarket, most likely the tree it produced would not bear sweet fruit. Sweetness is a trait that only occurs naturally in a varietal that originated in Kazakhstan, in a grove that the food writer Michael Pollan calls "the wild apple's Eden." Its unique genes have been preserved over centuries via grafting-a process that involves melding the bud of one plant with the tissue of another to create a clone-ensuring that the original trees, from which an estimated 90 percent of the apples we eat today derive, never really vanish. Rather, its genetic structure is preserved through its many descendants. Breeding apples in this way, however, restricts biodiversity, preventing trees from coevolving with the viruses, bacteria and fungi that can attack them.
In "take me to the apple breeder," an exhibition of 10 large-scale photographs and nine small glazed porcelain sculptures, the Los Angeles-based artist Jessica Rath tenderly explored the tension that exists between life and death as a result of such human interventions in the natural world. Similar work is currently on view in a larger solo show on the theme at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (through Feb. 24, 2013).
In the photographs, the smallest of which is 32 by 41 inches, newly bred apple trees being developed for mass production by Susan Brown, a professor at Cornell's Horticulture Program, are captured in sweeping, almost unbearably melancholy compositions. Photographed outside in winter, without leaves or fruit, against a backdrop of white muslin, the barren forms are imbued with figurative qualities; the images are more portraiture than documentation. The title of Clone weeping with resistance (2012) turns one tree into the protagonist of a heroic narrative; the drama is heightened by its isolation against the brown dirt and depthless white cloth. In Sisters small and different (2012), the branches of two straggly looking trees bend together in gestures of familial comfort. In Clone with central leader (weak branches bear more fruit), 2012, which depicts a strong trunk supporting slender offshoots, human intervention seems all-powerful. Such a tree is possibly too weak to survive naturally; humans breed it in such a way to bear the most fruit. However, if the fruit isn't tasty, the scientists at Cornell won't graft the tree onto another. The breed itself will go extinct. Rath's photograph will take on a memorial quality.
Inspired by nine endangered varietals rescued from the wild by Philip Forsline, the curator of the apple collection at one of Cornell University's agricultural research stations, the sculptures were displayed on a cluster of pedestals of varying heights. In Yellow Bellflower (2012), two deathly white apples resemble winter melons. In Kazakhstan Elite (2012), Rath represents the ancient source of the domestic apple in four seemingly ordinary red fruits. Even if these breeds die off, their fruit lives on in porcelain. Human intervention, whether esthetic or scientific, allows nature to survive when it might not of its own accord.
Photo: Jessica Rath: Clone with central leader (weak branches bear more fruit), 2012, pigment print on exhibition fiber, 79 by 59 inches; at Jack Hanley.