by Gabrielle Selz
Watching President Mohamed Nasheed of the Republic of Maldives hold a cabinet meeting on global carbon emissions underwater to illustrate the pressing issue of rising sea levels in his island nation, the multi-disciplinary artist Kim Anno wondered, “Where am I? Where am I going?” That was about a decade ago. In the wake of a season of unprecedented fires, floods, and the resulting death tolls worldwide, it’s a question many of us are now asking. Anno’s latest solo exhibition, Animal’s Reading Room at Anglim Trimble, explores these enormous environmental concerns. It is a show with a whimsical storybook title that conceals a profound message: How can we confront the incomprehensible magnitude of humanity’s past and ongoing actions concerning our planet’s ecosystems?
Anno’s artistic practice has always been integrated with activism. She grew up in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles with mixed-raced parents who took her to protests, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s Walk to Freedom march in Detroit. Later, she attended the Feminist Studio Workshop founded by Judy Chicago. She is drawn to metamorphosis—to possibility—and sees artists with their adaptive superpowers as the natural leaders needed to help frame the issues around ecology and sustainability. She does this in myriad ways, employing the seductive, glossy surfaces of mirrors.
In 2003, Anno began painting on aluminum, experimenting with the elusive, ambiguous quality of the metal as a canvas. In The Company of Animals and Arch of the Butterfly, both from 2022, she incorporates 18th-century engravings of protozoa, sea sponges, butterfly pupa, birds, and a historical landmark onto metal, which she then distresses and obscures with swirls of luminous oil paint. She calls this action “an attempt to love images to death, to adorn them, and ultimately damage them.” Her process is a metaphor for human interactions with nature, touching and manipulating our planet until we endanger its existence. Anno’s paintings show a surface that is as polished as a protective shield but also fluid, a shimmering liquid facade that swims in and out of focus.
In Anno’s more recent paintings, she has transitioned from the metallic aluminum surface to linen on wood. But even here, her illustrations, laid down on white paint, then liquefied with oils, dissolve, melt and blur. Out of the Mist, for example, has the watery distorted texture of a sea relic or a photo halted midway through the developing process. A phoenix rises into a murky lavender sky. A butterfly with wings as large as a tree canopy flutters above an etched forest. Although these paintings contain figurative and literary elements, they are not narratives that are meant to be parsed and understood.
In Ocelot in the Temple, the composition is divided down the middle like an open book, suggesting a story. On one side, Anno silk-screened a vertical image of a Greek temple in cherry pink and sky blue. On the other, two spotted ocelots face off horizontally on a yellow-saturated savanna. Like a precise oil painting transforming into a watercolor and then evaporating before our eyes, Anno’s hard surfaces, with their fuzzy images, resist cohesion, opting instead to freeze the transitional.
Given Anno’s attraction to mutation—to capturing impermanence—it’s not surprising that she was drawn to video. After viewing the underwater footage of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Republic of Maldives, Anno taught herself video. She wanted to address an audience less concerned with consumption and material wealth. She wanted to dig deep into the relationship between esthetics and ecology—between art and life.
Signs, running 8 minutes, is her love song to humanity. To animals most of all, but also to our planet, light, and water and all mirrored surfaces——estuaries, lakes, ponds, but also car mirrors and windows—shiny reflections that have since before the Greeks sang our stories, revealed, hypnotized, and betrayed us. The
soundtrack to Signs is a libretto of poetic fragments by Sappho, further adapted by Anno and composed and sung by Anne Hege. Anno’s shots—lions, birds, children, cars, trees, the Bay Bridge in the rain, a walrus, a monkey clinging to a rock—appear vertical, horizontal and sometimes upside down. Her images multiply, splinter, juxtapose, merge, float, and flow while the chorus sings: Stand up and look at me, face to face/My friend/Unloose the beauty of your eyes.
The most beautiful image I hope I never forget is a close-up of a sheep’s face, so black and glossy it looks blue. This is love, I thought. It is also love’s adjacent, the fear and anticipation of loss. Anno has slowed down the process. She wants us to visualize how we lose not only the thing we love but its after-image, our memory of it. Bit by bit, the edges begin to blur and fade. Then, all at once, it’s gone.
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Kim Anno: “Animal’s Reading Room” @ Anglim Trimble Gallery through October 28, 2023.
About the author: Gabrielle Selz is an award-winning author. Her books include the first comprehensive biography of Sam Francis, Light on Fire, and Unstill Life: Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction. Her essays and art reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic, Art & Object, Art Papers, The Rumpus, and The Huffington Post, among others. She makes her home in Oakland, California.