The pattern evokes the simplest of weavings, the most basic calligraphy: white verticals crossed by inky black horizontals. Whether standing amid darker pines or clustered in a grove, birch trees have left an impression on human consciousness for millennia. Long before Robert Frost harnessed their spirit in poetry, ancient cultures found strength in their radiance, their femininity, their scrappy ability to take root where mightier trees dared not—in the aftermath of forest fires and other devastations to the land.
For Elisabeth Ochsenfeld, the birch tree has been a lifelong inspiration. Her paintings capture nuance in its stark coloration, strength in its slender form, abstraction in what is a very recognizable object. Whole trees rarely appear. Instead, the artist zeroes in on a portion of her subject, frequently treating it as a theme and variations in multi-panel works.
The singularity of the birch tree serves as a starting point for the Ochsenfeld. With only a few strokes, she can convey her subject. Sometimes, the tree loses all anchors. Roots, leaves, earth, sky dissolve amid a flurry of black and white confetti in one of the most abstract diptychs. Swept against a ground of luminous chartreuse, the birch no longer stands earthbound, but soars in a more transcendent realm. Like the poet Andrew Marvell’s “green thought in a green shade,” this tangible entity has shed its specificity and taken on the attributes of all items like it. And yet, as rendered by the artist’s sure hand, the tree retains its physicality in paint. The transformation is masterful: a concept so vivid, it begs to be touched.
The cycle from thing to idea to thing echoes the organic nature of Ochsenfeld’s perennial subject. Seasons come and go in her paintings. One long, narrow work features an expanse of pale trunks interlaced with dashes of black and April green. New growth has exploded to life here, across a universe that stretches from one edge of the canvas to another, in a panoply that bears the tree’s distinct signature, repeated seemingly ad infinitum.
In other paintings strands of rust or icy gray transport birches through different times of the year or of their own lives. Ochsenfeld avoids pinning her trees to a particular moment or place. Each burst of new green carries the implication of a future withering, just as each patch of black on white suggests a tree or even an entire forest.
Civilizations from Celtic Britain to Norse Scandinavia and Russia have celebrated the symbolic power of the birch tree. Purity gleams from the whiteness of its bark. In fact, the name ‘birch’ is related to the Germanic root for ‘white,’ ‘bright,’ and ‘shine.’ Fertility and rebirth correspond to the birch’s capacity to thrive in environments that look too desolate to foster life. It is not surprising that societies that made boats from the birch’s bark, liquor from its sap, and furniture from its timber would elevate the tree to iconic status.
In Ochsenfeld’s art, however, the tree has no nationality, no home, no agenda. It is alive in paint, and will be reborn again and again as long as she continues to see its image in her mind’s eye.
JOANNE SILVER (USA)