The Primal Symbolism of a Tree

Abstract shapes come together to build a life-sized natural wonder on the floors of large public spaces

FRRIC ROBERT BOUCHE had found the perfect tree. It was standing alone in a large meadow in the medieval town of Aigues-Mortes in the south of France. Because the tree had been struck by lightning, its shape was unusual, somewhat symmetrical, but not exactly. It immediately appealed to Bouchs artistic sensibility.

So, he photographed the tree, sketched it, and thought about how he could best represent it.

What resulted is ``Tree Dimensional,'' a life-sized installation made from 5,763 sheets of Arches paper that were boiled in water, laid over a bed of stones, walked on, then drawn on with black acrylic, ink, lead, and off-white and dark- umber crayon sticks.

The project took him almost two years.

Recently, Bouche exhibited ``Tree Dimensional'' at the Boston University Armory. Four people took 10 hours to assemble the work. (Each piece of paper is numbered on the back and placed in corresponding boxes when Bouche travels.)

The most striking aspect of ``Tree Dimensional'' is its scale.

``The size? I pondered a long time on this,'' Mr. Bouche says in an interview. ``When I make a piece like this, I generally have an aim to make it site-specific.'' The work is often shown in places not normally used to exhibit art. One prerequisite is a balcony, so that viewers may see the work as a whole.

Up close, one sees abstract renderings of shadows, scribbles, and mottled ink on treated paper. (``The most difficult thing was keeping the level of grays,'' Bouche says.) From above, these pieces come together to make the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves of the tree. Looking at the whole is an exercise in defining where abstraction ends and representation begins.

``It's very meditative,'' Bouche says, ``it is also primal.''

This is only the second figurative piece Bouche has created; he has been an artist for about 10 years, studying and exhibiting in Normandy, France; Paris; China; and the United States. Bouche has worked a good deal with mud and black ink on linen and paper, so ``Tree Dimensional'' is a natural extension for him. In 1991, for example, he created a black-and-white ink painting of a landscape in Normandy on a 66-ft. by 10-ft. piece of linen.

``Tree Dimensional'' offers many dimensions worth exploring, Bouche explains. The tree as a symbol, for example, was something that people could relate to, he explains. ``Never has anyone asked me, `Why did you do a tree?'

``We all recognize it's a tree. We all realize a tree is beautiful; a tree always has been beautiful. This made me think a lot about what beauty is. Beauty is really more a matter of functionality rather than sensitivity at first. A tree is a gift to humanity. It has helped humans survive by providing them with wood, shelter, food.... It is a perfect symbolic image. Up close, you see how beauty is deeply seated,'' he says.

The size of the pieces of paper is also significant. At first Bouche thought he might use larger sheets. But the ``secretarial'' size that he worked on meant that he completed a few sheets each day - ``almost like going to work,'' he says. ``Everyone has a job where they do a little every day, but maybe they don't see the total picture, the goal that results,'' he says.

As we climb a few flights of stairs to view the work from above, Bouche explains that ultimately he hopes to cover ``Tree Dimensional'' in resin and leave it as a permanent installation somewhere. The quality of the paper is so good it could be considered stronger than canvas, he says.

Most people study ``Tree Dimensional'' for a longer time than they expect to, Bouche says, observing two people walk around it on ground level. ``It's meditative spending time here. It lifts us. It grows in me incredibly, still.''

* `Tree Dimensional' will be at `Around the Coyote' arts festival in Chicago, Sept. 8 to 13, with probable exhibitions following in New Orleans, Houston, San Francisco, and Seattle.

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