by David M. Roth
The past several decades have seen a lot of environmentally oriented art made to spark awareness and drive policy changes. None I know compares in scope and singularity of purpose to Kim Abeles’ Smog Catchers. The title isn’t a metaphor; it refers to the act of collecting airborne particulate matter and deploying it across various media to demonstrate the hazards it poses to human health. Installed at the Sac State Library Gallery and organized by its director, Kelly Linder, Smog Catchers is a sprawling, beguiling conceptual triumph. It features 75 disparate objects organized into four overlapping categories (politics, the body, mapping/marking and domestic spaces) that, together, chart pollution’s impact. Large as it is, it represents only a fraction of the artist’s output, which a 2021 exhibition at CSU Fullerton examined at even greater length.
This ongoing science-driven inquiry, which the artist launched in 1987, opens with a grid of photos of the LA sky, showing views ranging from perfect to perfectly dismal – 60 in all. Of the many images in this show, the one that lodges deepest in memory is of a young girl holding up the hem of her dress as if catching fruit tossed from an unseen tree. It measures 15 feet tall and evokes a Rockwellesque brand of mid-20th-century nostalgia that almost everything in the show insistently denies. It’s but one indicator of what a strange and variegated harvest this exhibition is, at once thrilling and unsettling.
Abeles’ own “harvests” begin by placing hand-cut stencils on transparent surfaces that, when exposed to indoor or outdoor air and removed, yield gritty positive images. These the artist mounts on plates, books, domestic items and pieces of plexiglass, big and small — demonstrating the seemingly infinite range of creative uses to which automotive and industrial waste can be put. One piece measuring 22 feet long hangs from the ceiling, showing a portion of the LA skyline as a sooty shadow – upside down, like those Abelardo Morell made with a camera obscura. A quartet of images derived from historic photos of grain elevators – a source of pollution? – reads like a variation on Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typological studies of similar structures. In Car Parts, smog-derived V-8 engine overlays a photo of a 1910 electric car plant, intimating what the world might have looked like had oil companies not hijacked the nascent auto industry. Elsewhere, Abeles replicates a pastoral scene painted in 1846 by Hudson River School artist Asher Brown Durand called The Hunter, framed by a collection of small hand tools and colored balloons jumbled together. (It brings to mind similar efforts undertaken by Vik Muniz, who re-created historic paintings from such substances as peanut butter, sugar, dust, machine parts, spaghetti and cut-up magazine pages.)
Aesthetic concerns, though vital to Abeles’ practice, are only a means to an end. Her goal is to change the trajectory of environmental discourse, away from empty pledges and into political action. Toward that end, a group of 17 Presidential Commemorative Plates — portraits on porcelain composed of airborne grit, each accompanied by quotes — remind viewers of promises made and the degree to which they were kept, represented by the density of the accumulated particulate matter. The most relevant quote Abeles cites, however, comes not from a US president but from historian William Weeks: “The progress that has been made in the US regarding air pollution controls was largely negated by globalization – the smog was merely offshored, only to come back with the wind.”
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Kim Abeles: “Smog Catchers” @ Sac State Library Gallery through May 20, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.