View of “Irene Kopelman,” 2018. Walls: 77 Colors of a Volcanic Landscape A, B, C, 2016. Floor: The Levy’s Flight, Puzzle piece #2, 2012. Photo: Kristien Daem.

View of “Irene Kopelman,” 2018. Walls: 77 Colors of a Volcanic Landscape A, B, C, 2016. Floor: The Levy’s Flight, Puzzle piece #2, 2012. Photo: Kristien Daem.

Irene Kopelman

The tallest peak in Southeast Asia, Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu, is an ecological anomaly, home to a bafflingly high concentration of endemic plant and animal species. Are these unique life forms recent links in the global evolutionary chain, or just the surviving relics of species long extinct elsewhere? In 2012, the Kinabalu/Crocker Range Expedition set out to answer this question, assembling a team of forty specialists, including Irene Kopelman, an artist who approaches ecological research from the vantage point of aesthetics. While her colleagues harvested genetic material for classification, Kopelman catalogued myriad shades of plant life to produce Sampling Greens, 2012, a comprehensive color index consisting of fifteen diptychs rendered in gouache and pencil. The first part of each diptych offers a loosely structured annotated palette, while its complement shows the color components of more complex foliage broken down into spindly lines, charting up to six distinct hues within a single leaf.

This type of color dictionary played a critical role in early expeditions, when explorers such as Charles Darwin required a universal terminology to accurately convey the wonders they encountered. Reviving these traditions, Kopelman often makes drawings on-site, then expands upon them in the studio, where her observations morph into more abstract formats. The resulting works are at once aesthetically accessible, yet often inscrutable in terms of utility. What does one do with this information? Kopelman’s practice elicits comparison to the obstinate taxonomies of Hanne Darboven, whose all-consuming methodologies not only demonstrated alternative means of organizing information, but also challenged the hierarchies governing the kind of information deemed worthy of archiving. Are observations only useful when they conform to established frameworks? Or can these frameworks still shift to accommodate new perspectives?

Curated by the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art’s Samuel Saelemakers and its new director, Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, “Irene Kopelman, a solo exhibition” elegantly distilled the artist’s practice through the lens of five recent projects. Here, Sampling Greens shared a room with Tree Lines (A-B-C-D), 2013, a suite of four acrylic paintings based on drawings the artist made in Davos, Switzerland. Though the town’s name may now be synonymous with global economic power, Kopelman set her sights on other forces, mapping out the forests on the surrounding peaks to record the paths of past avalanches. Each canvas is bare, save for watery dabs of dusky emerald acrylic, which sooner suggest the traces of something already absent than something that has maintained its presence.

The floor sculpture The Levy’s Flight, Puzzle piece #2, 2012, emulated the mottled crust of volcanic craters via more than one thousand erratically shaped slabs of pigmented clay, individually fitted together anew for each installation. It was flanked by 77 Colors of a Volcanic Landscape, 2016, a trio of oil paintings in which found contour lines are reassembled in a palette derived from lava stones Kopelman observed during a trip to Hawaii. Flattened onto canvas, the delicate fissures read like crash-landed Calder mobiles or broken branches, the solid-colored sections suggesting leaves withered to shades of walnut, pistachio, or olive against tumultuous backdrops of sapphire, fermented moss, and a mulberry-stained gray.

Finally, Forest Windows (The Exact Opposite from Distance Paintings), 2012, offered three gouache paintings modeled after sketches from an expedition to Peru’s Madre de Dios rain forest reserve. Acknowledging the impossibility of achieving any perspective of distance amid such lush foliage, Kopelman instead concentrated on capturing the experience of ecological density. For each sketch, the artist first carved out a manageable “window” by picking a single line within her view—the slope of a liana vine, for instance. She traced the course of the line as it slid from one plant to another, until she had created a closed form. Kopelman then rendered the contents of this window into compact visual morsels, each roughly the size of one’s palm. The three paintings hung across from vitrines containing the artist’s original drawings: wispy pencil sketches that condense the vast ecosystem to human scale. More specifically, to one human’s scale. The question that lingered was what value such personalized notational devices—images of information—might possess beyond the aesthetic.