by David M. Roth
Talk of the Anthropocene almost always revolves around the impact of fossil fuel consumption on climate. But what of other scourges like war and natural disasters that had nothing to do with human intervention? Meridel Rubenstein, a Santa Fe-based photographer with a list of globe-spanning projects to her credit, grapples with such events by making art that demonstrates the inextricable links between nature’s fate and our own.
Rubenstein comes to the task well-prepared. She studied with 20th-century master Minor White (1908-1976) and photo historians Beaumont Newhall and Van Deren Coke, and has since transformed White’s brand of nature-based abstraction into a highly adaptive, postmodern vision consisting of installations, still images and collages whose often-jarring juxtapositions link past and present to a speculative (and presumably better) future.
Her current exhibition, Recent Work, containing excerpts from a series called The Earth Takes Flight, expands on themes she addressed in an earlier long-term project called Eden in Iraq (part of a trilogy called Eden on its Side). All refer to a prelapsarian past that, in Rubenstein’s view, may be recoverable. Based on photos she made in Mesopotamia, Recent Work takes the Great Flood as its theme, seen in three tall, vertical images that hang like scrolls. Each depicts barrel-shaped boats made of basketry known as “Guffa,” all-purpose vessels whose history dates to 5500 BCE. In Photoshop-enabled collages, the artist portrays them, alternately, as houseboats and floating cornucopia that have become unmoored. Sprouting trees and disgorging fruit and vegetables, they bump up against melting polar ice, parched desert and a suburban home. It matters not that the flood, as recounted in The Epic of Gilgamesh, preceded the biblical flood from which Noah attempted to escape God’s wrath — it’s Noah’s dilemma you’ll likely think of when looking at these composite images.
Of the four guffa pictured, the one titled Deluge sums up the series best. It shows the boat adrift in choppy water casting the shadow of a submerged tree that visual logic tells us should not be there. Floating ice chunks linger in the background and stretch to the top of the picture, looking, against an oily sky, like the ominous clouds seen in El Greco’s paintings of Toledo. Backyard Boat, another grouping of disparate images rendered at a smaller scale, merges a guffa with the white picket fence of a Western-style home. Both images call to mind similarly constructed photos made by the surrealist photographer Jerry Uelsmann (1934-2022), another student of Minor White, noteworthy for pioneering darkroom methods that prefigured today’s digital imaging techniques.
A montage of six surrounding images, printed in a tondo format, shows fruits, native plants and an open birdcage – all seemingly hopeful signs. But to understand them in the context in which Rubenstein operates, it helps to know a little about Eden in Iraq, the body of work preceding the one now on view. The artist undertook it a decade ago after learning of an effort to restore a 3,000 square-mile wetland between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers that Saddam Hussein destroyed to dislodge political opponents who’d taken refuge there. To disperse them, his engineers dug canals, which drained the water into the Persian Gulf, leaving the area — home to a tribe whose ancestry dates to the Sumerians — a charred wasteland. Many of their 250,000 descendants, known as the Marsh Arabs, died or became refugees. Significantly, the area occupies what scholars believe is the site of the biblical Eden (assuming such a place existed). Thanks to an NGO called Nature Iraq, the region has been partially revived: The canals have been demolished, the flood plain has been restored, and its refugees are slowly returning – though not without difficulties, one of them being pollution from newly built communities with inadequate sewage treatment. Rubenstein immersed herself in their struggle after watching a 60 Minutes segment on
the NGO’s leader, an Iraqi-American civil engineer named Azzam Alwash. In addition to the photographs Rubenstein made during her many trips to Iraq, she designed a still-in-progress wastewater garden fed by purified water. It’s one of several instances in which the artist embedded herself in local communities to probe connections between native people and ruined environments undergoing recuperation. (Another such project centered on Robert Oppenheimer and the impact of atomic testing on Indigenous peoples in and around Los Alamos, New Mexico.)
This exhibition – a prelude to a more extensive show yet to come – continues Rubenstein’s longstanding effort to demonstrate nature’s resilience in the face of forces that threaten to overtake it. While it employs a familiar methodology to subjects seen earlier, it opens a slightly different and more disturbing line of inquiry: Where in the past the artist strove to show that Eden remains in reach – if we want it –The Earth Takes Flight shows her wondering whether we can summon the collective will to save what’s left of it. In the wake of the Ukrainian catastrophe, a lot of us are entertaining similar doubts, making this exhibition, despite its diminutive size, timely and on-target.
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Meridel Rubenstein: “Recent Work” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through May 21, 2022. Rubenstein’s work also appears in a group show at MoMA called Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists from Helen Kornblum, on view to October 2, 2022
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder