New York

Jessica Rath, Sisters small and different, 2012, ink-jet print on paper, 32 x 41".

Jessica Rath, Sisters small and different, 2012, ink-jet print on paper, 32 x 41".

Jessica Rath

Jessica Rath, Sisters small and different, 2012, ink-jet print on paper, 32 x 41".

Jessica Rath’s large-format photographs of apple trees in winter, all made this year, have a kind of alarming beauty. Taken with clinical precision, the ten images portray the barren trees against lengths of white muslin, either alone or in a row, rising up from a scrubby ground that is in places littered with bruised and rotting fruit. The blank backdrops and bare branches emphasize the shapes of the trunks and configurations of branches—the “architecture” of the trees—inviting the viewer to track the differences between each image: Some trees have a narrow, columnar shape, others have outstretched or drooping branches, and still others are clipped or gnarled.

These photographs, and a selection of nine porcelain sculptures of apples that accompanied them, are responses to the complex discipline of apple breeding. The abundance of apples in modern life involves a good deal more than the sun and the rain and the apple seed (as the song goes): It requires carefully executed cross-pollination and grafts, as well as a good amount of time—it takes several years for a new tree to bear fruit. The photographs show the work of Dr. Susan Brown at Cornell University, one of three apple breeders in the United States who engineer new varieties of the fruit for mass production; these trees are manufactured hybrids, entirely new. The titles Rath gives the images—Sisters weeping, Clone with perseverance, Sisters small and different—employ the particular jargon of apple propagation, but many would not be entirely out of place in an Emily Dickinson poem. And, with their white fabric backgrounds, the images have something of the austerity and introversion that we tend to ascribe to the poet as well.

The severity of the photographs, which speak to the future of the apple, contrasts with the glossy voluptuousness of the sculptures, which represent its past. Based on specimens in the archive of Philip Forsline, the “apple curator” at Cornell, these sculptures, produced over the past two years, depict rare breeds of the fruit—pure white apples, tiny apples, apples as large as a baby’s head—many of which are on the verge of extinction. The romantic, wild hybrids of the past thus appear beautiful, tempting; it is as if the artist were trying to memorialize them.

Rath plumbs the theme of human intervention in nature but resists rendering ethical judgments. If it weren’t for these acts of breeding, we wouldn’t have apples as we know them; the likelihood of a sweet, edible apple that isn’t bred by humans occurring by itself in the wild is slim. (Many scientists believe Central Asia is the birthplace of the edible apple, and a breed from that region, the Kazakhstan Elite, is shown here as a sculpture.) In our technological age, it is tempting to idealize the unthinking randomness of nature, but nature doesn’t much care about our projections, our narrative needs. And if we are caught in a scientific and ethical quandary between meddling and “naturalness,” between, in this case, survival and extinction, we are caught in a metaphorical one as well. The fruit at the beginning of the alphabet, the symbol of wholesomeness and ease, has been for just as long the symbol of desire and damnation. A is also for ambivalence.

Emily Hall