by Lawrence Gipe
From the dawn of civilization, art has recorded humanity’s relationship to nature. The earliest such works date to Upper Paleolithic times, to the caves of Lascaux, where artists displayed their reverence, fear and awe for the creatures that surrounded them. These vivid tableaux, which creatively integrated animal, human and biomorphic forms, lay in darkness for millennia. Then, in 1948, Lascaux’s paintings were discovered and opened to the public. The crowds caused so much deterioration that the caves were closed in 1955. After 17,300 years unmolested, it took humanity a mere seven years to hasten their demise.
Now, in our post-Anthropocene era, where scientists debate the precise point in time when man’s presence on Earth began to degrade it, we now recognize that every human action brings about a corresponding reaction. The outlook is bleak: Recent data show that we are entering a period called “Sixth Total Extinction”; by 2050, three-quarters of all species, from bees to elephants, are scheduled to gradually vanish. The scope of the potential devastation is miserable to fathom, and while all but the stupidest deniers apprehend the dangers, it remains to be seen whether our consumer culture has the will to back away from the precipice.
What place does art have in this scenario? A useful credo might be the one adopted by doctors: do no harm. It’s often occurred to me that, for all the pro-environment lip service the art world doles out, the practice of art remains incredibly wasteful. For example, what, precisely, was the cost in energy for Christo and Jeanne Claude to fabricate, ship and install 3,000 umbrellas at two U.S. locations and in Japan in 1991? What environmental toll was exacted when the artist team, Allora & Calzadilla, shipped a 52-ton military tank (Track and Field, 2011) to the 2011 Venice Biennale? The list could go on and on. By contrast, Indestructible Wonder, a group exhibition of 17 artists organized by Associate Curator Rory Padeken at the San Jose Museum of Art, sets a relatively constructive example: it taps the institution’s own collection. While that may be a reflection of budgetary constraints, this “thematic group exhibition from the permanent collection” also provides an interesting window into the museum’s holdings. Here, Padeken clearly has access to work that serves his topic well.
A key piece of the exhibition is Diana Thater’s Untitled (Butterfly Videowall #2), a newly acquired video installation that confronts viewers with a perfectly calibrated balance of formalism and lyricism. Thater, like her kindred spirit Pipilotti Rist, aims to upend the norms of video by activating the floor and the ceiling, interposing screens and other strategies of disorientation. In this piece, she takes a feminist swipe at Dan Flavin’s phallic tubes, pulling two similar-looking objects down to the floor as part of an arrangement that also includes, as its centerpiece, five, large flat-screen monitors. These display a loop of blurred close-ups of Monarch butterflies flapping their wings in slow motion. Thater recorded them in Michoacán, Mexico, a former safe haven now being destroyed by de-forestation, a loss that forces the butterflies to skitter beneath foliage on the ground for protection. Thus, what seems at first glance to be a formal, interventional device – that of placing a video piece flat on the floor – makes perfect sense once the backstory is revealed.
A wall of photos by Chris Jordan (partially lit by the eerie light from Thater’s installation) chronicles the deaths of baby albatrosses on Midway Atoll. The series, Midway, CF000228
(2009), was shot near the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a Texas-sized vortex of plastic trash. Mistaking the bright pieces of refuse in the ocean for food, mother albatrosses feed their chicks plastic; the malnourished babies decay on the atoll’s beach, their bellies bloated and bursting with non-biodegradable items like bottle caps and clots of monofilament. Jordan captures them in a state of blanched decay, as feathers and bones mixed with sand. This portrayal flattens the photos optically and mitigates their otherwise horrific appearance. This disturbing and affecting series, like many of the works in Indestructible Wonder, was donated to the San Jose Museum by the Lipman Family Foundation, whose commitment to material that deals unflinchingly with these issues is commendable.
Painters, both abstract and representational, dominate the main chamber of this two-room exhibition. Among the latter is Chester Arnold whose Entropic Landscape (1999) depicts an avalanche of used tires. It comes on like an environmentalist’s Anselm Kiefer, with an ominous fire raging in the background. It brings to mind an actual tire fire that, in 1998, raged for weeks in Tracey, blackening the sky with toxic plumes. (“As close to a biblical vision of Hell as anything imaginable,” is how the San Francisco Chronicle described it.)
Lisa Adams’ painting, Given That All Things Are Equal (2009), offers a similarly apocalyptic vision. It’s based on a visit to the Salton Sea, a notorious environmental disaster zone where the lake’s beaches consist of fish skeletons that crackle hollowly underfoot. Adams designs a surrealistic panorama juxtaposing elements of “renewal” against the devastated landscape, optimistically summoning nature’s ability to renew itself after humans leave it for dead. “It feels like a place lost and forgotten,” she says, “but, somehow, in spite of its lack of being cared for, it continues along.”
Not everything in the show addresses environmental issues as directly as one might hope. Abstract works by Ruth Asawa, Judy Pfaff and Amy Kaufman, while inspired in varying degrees by organic forms and patterns, carry no implicit critique. Kaufman’s tense, Sean Scully-esque paintings, for example, are certainly worthy, but they feel misplaced in this context. Closer to the mark is Val Britton’s The Sea Within (2014) a large, collaged work on paper based on Rachel Carson’s first writings about the ocean and conservation. Britton uses the visual language of maps, interweaving cutout shapes of landmasses with swoops of topographical line work.
A show about the environment wouldn't be complete without photos from Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach. From Burtynsky we get Oil Fields #19A, Belridge, California (2003-2005), a high-angle shot of derricks in the San Joaquin Valley, taken from his epic Oil series; and from Misrach comes Desert Fire # 248 (1985), a twilight image of a flaming horizon line, a controlled crop burn perhaps. The cause of the blaze is unclear. Images of similar terrain appeared in Border Cantos, a Misrach exhibition mounted earlier this year at the museum. Writing about them in these pages, Patricia Albers said, “they…clear space for pondering and discussing these issues in moral and human terms.”
Indestructible Wonders occupies a similar space, establishing a record of environmental inquiry that we can only hope the museum will repeat as we edge deeper into an increasingly perilous future.
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“Indestructible Wonder” @ San Jose Museum of Art through January 29, 2016.
Other artists included in the exhibition are: Anne Appleby, Sandow Birk, Michael Light, Danae Mattes, Nathan Redwood, Sam Richardson, Alyson Shotz, Kathryn Spence, Kirsten Stolle, Gail Wight and Evan Holm.
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland. His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. Gipe, with his collaborator Sarah Tell, will be curators-in-residence this spring at Pro Arts in Oakland, where the exhibition, Everyone is Hypnotized: Artists Dérive the Bay Area, opens May, 2017.