Sunday, September 29, 2013

Elevated Distress Signals

Elevated Distress Signals

By Tom Wachunas

    “Man has been endowed with reason, with the powers to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wildlife’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.” –Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya, 1897

    EXHIBIT: Environmental Impact: The Power of Art Confronts Our Environmental Crises, THROUGH OCTOBER 27, 2013, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton (330) 453-7666

    Who could reasonably doubt that truly fine art has the capacity to draw us into genuine reflection – genuflection, if you will - on what we instinctively recognize as the most noble, pure and indeed beautiful elements of the world we inhabit? Conversely, art can just as well bring us to mourning the loss of those same elements. It is the realization of art’s dual potentiality – to transport our souls to sublime heights of reverence and celebration, or induce anger and despair – that makes this traveling exhibit, curated by Dr. David J. Wagner (author of American Wildlife Art), so utterly compelling.

     The show is surely not a conventional embrace of nature’s inspiring, undisturbed majesty. “The paintings, photographs and sculptures of Environmental Impact are antithetical to that tradition,” Wagner tells us in his exhibit abstract. “Instead,” he continues, “they confront pressing issues of our time, from land development to industrial-scale depletion of natural resources, from the Gulf oil spill to the dangers of nuclear energy, the trashing of the American landscape, and the impact of Global Warming.”

     If nothing else, then, we are presented with an urgent, even desperate longing. Much of the natural imagery depicted here is alternately haunted and haunting, vulnerable or hopelessly spoiled, wounded, dying or dead. Here is Nature, but vivisected by human neglect, ignorance or, worse, design.

    The overall tone of the exhibit is immediately set when entering the main gallery and encountering the arresting sculpture, Travelers, by Sayaka Kajita Ganz. Three polar bears, meticulously made from plastic kitchen utensils and clothes hangers, are suspended from the ceiling as if swimming underwater. While certainly fascinating to behold, the piece is a bitterly ironic suggestion of how non-biodegradable garbage has become a migratory ocean species in its own right.

    Robert Bateman’s acrylic paintings are as stunning in technique as they are chilling in content. His impeccably detailed visions, such as Driftnet, draped with nylon netting and depicting a fatally entangled porpoise and seagull, are jarring if not heartrending visual reports of environmental assaults.

    In La Bajada Bluff, a surreal oil painting by Scott Greene, a bison has fallen off a cliff built from all manner of industrial trash and crumbling under its own weight. The seabirds in Leo Osborne’s strangely sleek maple burlwood sculptures fare no better. His The Ploy, with a footprint burned into the surface dangerously close to nested eggs, is an unsettling emblem of careless human invasion. More disturbing is the oil painting by Walter Ferguson, Save the Seashore. Under hazy sky and rendered in anemic tones, a little girl contentedly builds a sandcastle, oblivious to the trash splayed across the sand behind her.

    Amid these and other cautionary visual narratives are works that present a comparatively less pessimistic outlook, including the very large, stark canvas, Takken in het bos (Forest Succession), by Ron Kingswood. The title is Dutch, for ‘Branches in the Wood.’ Both abstract and illustrative, the brushy linearity captures the essence of young saplings growing in a forest after clear-cutting – a hopeful sign of what Kingswood calls in his statement “the tenacity of nature.” More lavish and spectacular in its suggestion of abundant replenishment is another large scale oil by Julie Heffernan, Budding Boy. A winsome lad is nestled in a tree overflowing with lush foliage and birds. He’s tethered to an enormous spheroid cluster of fruit and more birds, as if pregnant with new forest life in a re-made world.    

     There’s no questioning this exhibit’s excellence of aesthetic accomplishments on a purely formal level. But if that were the extent of their worth, I think it would be a hollow “art experience” indeed. The real value of this show lies in the questions – make that challenges – it poses for viewers.

    Oddly enough, I’m reminded of the glorious luminism so evident in wilderness masterworks from long ago, such as in the works of the Hudson River School painters and their optimistic solidarity with the Romantic ideals of Manifest Destiny. I’m fairly sure they would be summarily appalled at what we today have wrought upon so many of the panoramas they beheld with awe. Still, threaded throughout this exhibit is an illumination of another sort, shedding light on any number of implied possible destinies, but only to the extent that we consider accountability. Will we, as stewards of the planet, continue to be consumed by our own consumerism and its destructive wake, or collectively decide to alter our treacherous course?

     From that perspective, this exhibit brings a significantly elevated, new meaning to the notion of “viewer participation” or “interactive art.”

    PHOTOS, from top: Travelers by Sayaka Kajita Ganz, 2013, Reclaimed plastic and metal, 57 x 24 x 26; 2 @ 45 x 16 x 18 inches /  Budding Boy by Julie Heffernan, 2010, oil on canvas, 78 x 56 inches, Courtesy of Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco and P.P.O.W., New York / Save the Seashore by Walter W. Ferguson, 1993, oil on canvas, 27.5 x 37.75 inches /  La Bajada Bluff by Scott Greene, 2013, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches, Collection of the Artist, Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco  /  Driftnet (Pacific White-Sided Dolphin and Lysan Albatross) by Robert Bateman, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, Collection of Birgit and Robert Bateman

Environmental Impact produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C.

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