The Reverend Eye

Nature's visual design elements revealed in the art of Gene Hedge

Renata Karlin, PH.D.
December 2013

A great deal of art criticism is written in terms of our expectation about what constitutes acceptable sensitivity and visual language at a given moment in time. The visual language for much of the 20th century was dominated by varying definitions of modernism, seen primarily as a process of increasing reduction and varying degrees of independence from the visual references to the natural world.

Preoccupation with pictorial conventions can easily blind one to the actual experience of seeing. The natural world, specifically natural forms are the mind spring for all of Gene Hedge's work. Although natural forms are the source of his art, Hedge's uniquely reductionist way of seeing makes him thoroughly modern and forces us to reassess our relationship to the natural world, the fabric of our world around us, to see again with new eyes.

In paintings, collages and photographs Hedge allows us to see how he sees the beauty of the world around us and we see it for the first time. We see, as he sees, that the same elements are repeated, yet they are always different whether we look at grass, leaves, feathers, butterflies, the strata of multi-colored sandstone, the color or the surface texture of discarded material found at construction sites and vacant lots. The attentive, close-up view he gives us of the natural forms he depicts, conveys the organizing framework of nature, the visual charge inherent in the same elements repeated but always different.

I first encountered Gene Hedge's work in the late 1960s when he was exhibiting collages created from paper collected from streets, vacant lots, and constructions sites. The most memorable collages were made from layers of paper manufactured to protect curing concrete on roads. These layers of heavy paper were laminated with tar and reinforced nylon threads. Exposed to the elements, these layers would acquire shades of grey-brown coloring and widely varying surface textures. Hedge would tear, separate and reassemble these layers into collages that were sculptural and richly textured. The warm shades of brownish coloring evoked the musky scent of autumn leaves, melancholy and comforting at the same time.

Hedge's work reminds us of the poetic vision of childhood, walks in the woods where fallen leaves, tree bark, a hole in the fence would reveal something profound about the organizing elements in nature, coupled with a lifetime of expectations. Hedge never lost this inner vision. Rather, he honed this vision through a lifetime of visits to the museum of natural history. He was fortunate, that when as a young man he entered the Institute of Design in Chicago. The school's educational philosophy was closely aligned to his vision.

The Institute was founded by Maholy-Nagy as the New Bauhaus in 1937. The Bauhaus, and especially Maholy-Nagy, became known for the versatility of its artists. Maholy-Nagy' himself was proficient and innovative in the fields of printmaking, typography, photography, sculpture, and industrial design and demanded the same from his students. Maholy-Nagy coined the term “The New Vision", which he summed up in his book The New Vision for Material in Architecture.

Hedge entered the Institute with the intent to study architecture, which he soon changed to industrial design and then to visual design. The years at the school, gave him the means and the courage to proceed and explore, while the formal Bauhaus training grounded him and carried through. Like his teachers, he became proficient in many fields: architectural and industrial design, painting, collage and photography. “A Jack of all trades" he once described himself. He had two five-year stints developing the Visual Arts Curriculum at the School of Design in Raleigh, North Carolina and the University of Illinois at Chicago where he also taught students and trained instructors.

Part of Maholy-Nagy's vision encompassed the belief that photography could create a whole new way of seeing the outside world in a way the human eye could not. Thanks to digital technology, Hedge was able to realize Maholy-Nagy's vision. He uses technology to achieve a close-up view of the same natural objects that have fascinated him all his life, such as guinea feather, a variety of leaves, tree trunks, sea shells, and butterflies. With the use of technology, like a micro-archeologist, he explores the inherent design in natural forms, the underlying gestalt. By visualizing for us the basic elements of nature, repeated but never the same, he creates powerfully visual images. Images, the sensitive child sensed but could never see with the naked eye. The result is neither an abstraction nor a photographic image but a glimpse of the organizing elements within nature, momentarily revealed, always different and greatly cherished.