san francisco art magazine archives

Meridel Rubenstein

Millennial Forest
From Joan's Arc/Vietnam

Brian Gross Fine Art
49 Geary Street, Fifth Floor
San Francisco, California

September 6 - October 20, 2001

Bald Cypress - Meridel Rubenstein

The Strength of Trees

by Carol L. Weinfeld

     For centuries, artists have been inspired by war and its aftermath. Meridel Rubenstein's 1997 Vietnam visit was the catalyst for Millennial Forest, her thoughtful photographs of people and nature in Vietnam. Rubenstein's art shows the effect of the war on the Vietnamese. To demonstrate the different opinions of nature in Vietnam and in the United States, the artist photographs thousand year-old trees. The show is quite compelling, and the viewer feels surrounded by the nature, history and culture of Vietnam.

     The art shows how the war changed the lives of the Vietnamese. Anni, a Vietnamese orphan who moved to Connecticut, has a peaceful expression despite her deformed hand and the adversity she faced when changing cultures. She is juxtaposed against an ancient American tree in a portrait laminated between pieces of glass and mounted on a wooden base. One is reminded of the verticality of a headstone; the portrait serves as a memorial to Anni. Although she is alive, she has lost her Vietnamese life.

     Other portraits are mounted in the same manner as Anni's: Tommy, of mixed parentage, was discriminated against for being part American. He slightly smiles, so seems to have reconciled himself with his past. Dinh experienced the trauma of twice trying to flee Saigon, and succeeding the second time. Dinh's eyes are closed in his portrait, which evokes his memory for the viewer; he seems immersed in thoughts of his difficult past.

Old Growth Tapestry - Meridel Rubenstein

Old Growth Tapestry

     Whereas people must adapt to historical events, nature continues on. The trees in the painstakingly printed photographs are witnesses of war; they are stronger than mankind, since they will outlast us. They trivialize our wars, since we are transient compared to their longevity. In several photographs, they tower over temples or buildings. Rubenstein's trees fill the frames, with no room for people. We are unimportant to them, so unnecessary to the pictures.

     In addition to photographs of trees, Rubenstein combines nature with portraits. Old Growth Tapestry depicts Mai Ngoc Ha, the wife of a famous playwright. She seems as strong as the trees that surround her. Defiantly she confronts the camera. The old woman has witnessed many events in her life, as have the trees. Both will endure.

     The artist compares the different views of nature through photographs of trees in Vietnam and in the United States. In Vietnam, trees are sacred. For example, the Banyan tree is a symbol of protection, loyalty and stability, according to journalist Phan Than Hao. In Spong Tree, the tree's roots cover the temple, perhaps in protection. In the United States, we respect trees for their age and endurance. Both cultures revere trees, but more so in Vietnam, due to symbolism.

     As interesting as the subjects, is the process and display of the exhibition. Art imitates nature, wherein Rubenstein uses tree bark paper for the prints, with vegetable inks for the slight coloration. Her subject has become part of the process. The majority of the prints have dusky brown tones, reminiscent of nineteenth century sepia photos. This adds a feeling of antiquity to the prints; they echo the age of the trees.

Queen Tree - Meridel Rubenstein

Queen Tree

     When one stands in the gallery, one feels as if one is in a forest. These trees are strong, and many years older than we are. While the impact of history and war is powerful and horrendous, nature is unaffected. It inspires us with its impassivity; we can find strength in ourselves to persevere.

--Carol L. Weinfeld
     Carol L. Weinfeld is a contributing writer for San Francisco Art Magazine.

Image details:

     1. (top of page) Bald Cypress, E. Arkansas, 800-1000 yrs, 2000, iris print on bark paper, mixed media, 5 unique prints 46 x 34 inches each.

     2. Old Growth Tapestry, 2000, digital print on tree bark paper, mixed media with ground mica and gum arabic, 60 x 46 inches overall.

     3. Queen Tree, Vietnam, 2000, iris print on bark paper, mixed media, 5 unique prints 46 x 34 inches each.

     All images this page courtesy of Meridel Rubenstein and Brian Gross Fine Art.

     For more information about Meridel Rubenstein, visit
     For more information about Brian Gross Fine Art, visit