Remember the tale of Johnny Appleseed, the beloved nurseryman who left a trail of apple trees and goodwill all over the Midwest in the 18th and 19th centuries? Turns out, the legend has one major flaw: The yield from Johnny's tireless seeding efforts would have been almost inedible.

The true story is that in order for apples to taste good, they must come from clone orchards, created through a grafting process in which tiny buds from a single sweet tree are affixed to the rootstock of host trees and thus given the ability to proliferate. That means all the varieties we take for granted at our grocery stores and farmers markets — from Fujis to Pink Ladies to Braeburns — are man-made objects that have survived only because some scientists cared enough to sustain these specific strains over many years of farming.

Enter Jessica Rath, whose fascination with this subject inspired her to launch an investigation into humans' complex and reciprocal relationship with nature. Her research has culminated in an exhibition titled “take me to the apple breeder,” now on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, featuring nine sculptures and 11 photographs that represent much more than a simple homage to one mysterious fruit's aesthetic allure.

Rath's journey to this destination was a long one. It began in the southern Missouri Ozarks, on an old farm where the artist grew up and learned to “treat the land, whether urban or rural, as a place of experimentation, collection, observation,” she says in an interview.

In 2009, that spirit stirred her to pay a visit to Cornell University's USDA-ARS Plant Genetics Resource Unit, a “Noah's ark of orchards,” where Dr. Philip Forsline is keeping alive hundreds of endangered apple types by grafting buds culled from 30 years' worth of travel to at-risk orchards all over the world. Rath was captivated by the diversity of Forsline's issue and gathered dozens of vastly disparate samples, from which she selected the nine most distinctive-looking to serve as her sculptural muses.

After studying these apples closely to identify what she describes as “the most intriguing, beguiling aspects” of their shape, whether “bulbous or muscular or petite,” Rath fabricated an “amalgamated version” of each. She experimented for two years with different types of glazes for the sculptures — including low-fire glazes, which she says are characterized by a “flat quality” and a “true-to-color” look, and high-fire glazes, which are dense and vitreous but have a more limited color palette — and ultimately decided to combine them, “spraying one over the other and making multiple firings.”

In an essay for PMCA, Rath suggests that the “exquisite details within these strange objects allude to what science journalist Michael Pollan describes as the plants' attempt to lure humans into acting as an agent of reproduction, thus pointing to subconscious human desire as a key component in the larger web of life.”

Rath's pedestal-worthy porcelain pieces are strikingly dissimilar in appearance: Her Deacon Jones reproductions depict a sort of steroidal Red Delicious almost the size of a grapefruit, whereas Unnamed Frosted Sparkler resembles a cluster of tiny, pinkish persimmons. Yet all reference the fruit's mythical status as both an object of desire and a symbol of danger — only in the case of “take me to the apple breeder,” it is the apples themselves that are at risk.

The photographs in Rath's exhibition pay tribute to another Cornell scientist, Dr. Susan K. Brown, a breeder working to establish new apple varieties by cross-pollinating trees known for their reproductive desirability — in essence, the counterpoint to Forsline's undertaking to rescue obsolete varieties from extinction. When her hybrids bear fruit, Brown sows the seeds to form rows of 1,000 trees, or “seed sisters,” then selects the one highest-quality apple from each row to propagate further.

When Rath viewed in person Brown's groupings of trees, she appreciated them not so much for their function as for their form: Despite their shared purpose, each possessed a unique architecture all its own. In the winter of 2011, Rath hired a photographer to capture the trees' bare silhouettes, set against 20-by-30-foot white muslin backdrops. By employing these plain backgrounds to shield out other visual distractions in the landscape, she explains, the images bring to the forefront “all the hues of the plants' bark or skin, [as well as] the paleness of light in midwinter.”

At PMCA, these prints, 3 to 7 feet tall, present a microcosmic orchard that proudly asserts its inhabitants' divergent features, such as Clone Water Sprout's wild snarl of branches whipping every which way, and the gracefully vertical reach of Sisters Columnar With Difference.

The scientists' missions seem as pure of heart and enticing as Rath's portraits of the fruits of their labor, yet the question underlying these endeavors has sinister implications: What do we sacrifice by tampering with natural selection? While the artist concedes that “our interference was necessary to feed the planet,” since apples allowed to grow unchecked and bitter-tasting might never have become the staple they are today, she also believes, “What we lost when we created grafted apples was a diverse gene pool that…adjusts to its environment over time, 'weeding out' the weak and building stronger survival characteristics.” The same is true of people, Rath continues. Although science isn't doing with humans what it does with apples (yet), she notes, “We are a physically weak species in many ways, propped up by medicine, much like clones.”

At heart, Rath considers herself a naturalist, “someone who studies plants…but is not a scientist or a specialist.” She relies on the artistic tools at her disposal to express her ideas about nature and to invite her viewers to explore their personal connections to its phenomena.

In “take me to the apple breeder,” following the lead of the scientists she shadowed, Rath practices her own kind of genetic modification, idealizing and elevating her subjects so that they command our reverence.

“TAKE ME TO THE APPLE BREEDER” | Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena | Through Feb. 24 |

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