Beauty and the Beast: Northwest Environmental Art at BAM 

Northwest artists gather for Critical Messages

Landscaped Defaced

Jana Demartini

Landscaped Defaced

In the Boise Art Museum's entrance hall the ambience is immediately, and literally, thrust in visitors' faces with Washington artist Vaughn Bell's installation of "personal biospheres" entitled Village Green. Clear acrylic terrariums, suspended from above, house miniature landscapes complete with soil and growing vegetation into which viewers can pop their heads through a hole in the bottom. It is a multi-sensory experience that invites visitors to get close to indigenous natural specimens and the processes of growth and decay. As a portable retreat from urban captivity, it sets the welcoming tone for a show that some might otherwise approach with apprehension.

The message of Critical Messages: Contemporary Northwest Artists on the Environment is not new. Global warming, climate change, resources management, rampant consumption and the environment in general are not only leading political issues of the day but increasingly aesthetic and cultural ones as well. The artists of the Northwest have been at the forefront of environmentally engaged contemporary art, which makes sense, given that the region is brimming with lush, natural wonders, bred-in proclivity toward ecological responsibility, and its own set of pollution and growth problems. The touring survey, currently showing at the Boise Art Museum (its third and last stop) and billed as "the first critical examination of some of the key environmental issues that face our region," forcefully captures that sensibility through the creative responses of Northwest artists. It is a tribute to the region's ecological fragility, and a thoughtful--at times even subtle--indictment of mankind's destructive impact upon it.

The Northwest encompasses Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia, an area represented by 26 participating artists. Critical Messages makes a point of emphasizing the ecological diversity of the region: It is not just coastal tidal pools and endangered old growth forests, but the grasslands of the Palouse as well. Another important contribution that this (not incidentally) good-looking show makes is to bring attention to art being made today on a more accessible scale in both traditional and nontraditional mediums, and that there is more going on in this genre than the increasingly popular large-scale sculptural installations that tend to dwarf or envelop the viewer.

The BAM exhibit is a reaffirmation of the art object, with artists dramatically conveying their message in painting, printmaking, photography and sculpture.

Curated by Sarah Clark-Langager, director of the Western Gallery at Western Washington University in Bellingham, in collaboration with the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University, Critical Messages includes a number of names familiar to those who have followed Northwest art over the years. Old hands like Rick Bartow, Michael Brophy, Lanny DeVuono, Craig Langager, Buster Simpson and others mix with a younger generation of artists, some of whom, like John Grade, will be familiar to BAM patrons and Boiseans who know the Seattle art scene. The cumulative years of experience represented here make for an interesting blend of techniques and perspectives.

As curatorially conceived, the exhibit is thematically more than a bit complicated. In her catalog essay, Clark-Langager identifies 11 categories characterizing the environmental issues faced by the region and touched on by its artists. These are not neatly delineated--there is considerable overlap since any particular artist's contributions often address more than one of these issues. This explains why different works by several artists are found in various parts of the show. Trying to keep track of it all can be a daunting task, necessitating reading the ample wall texts and artist statements. While BAM has streamlined the process by not posting every category, this is not an exhibit for viewers in a hurry.

But it is time well spent. Whether or not a particular piece strikes your fancy, these are works that look both directly and obliquely within us and examine how our routine habits--even with the best of intentions--have an unforeseen impact. It is a message which says, in the words of the catalog's guest essayist, William Dietrich, "technological cleverness has outrun stewardship's wisdom."

That we are by no means entering the den of angry environmental activists but rather a realm of sensitive, yet provocative art is further affirmed at the entrance of the show's first gallery. There is a serenity to much of this work and a palpable sense that there is more to see than initially meets the eye. The promise of discovery invites you to take your time with the art and view it with an open mind. For example, Karen Rudd's timeless sculpture Last Stand: Cedar strikes the keynote with its mixture of strangeness and familiarity. Rudd's meticulous re-creation of a preserved old-growth cedar stump recently discovered in western Washington is a memento mori made more poignant by the fact that she has sculpted it in densely layered corrugated cardboard, an end product of the forest industry. A large, severed section of tree suspended above is a surreal symbol of the systematic dismantling of ancient forests.

A kindred spirit of Rudd's with a prominent presence in the exhibit is Oregon painter Michael Brophy, whose dramatic canvases also reference the region's depleted natural resources. Brophy is a strong painter; his canvases are often filled with off-center compositional quirks, partial views and anonymous traces of human encounters. In one of his three works in the show, the 2004 Tree Curtain, heavy drapery parts to reveal a clear-cut wasteland. It is not as incongruous an image as you might suppose. Think of those mountain highways throughout the Northwest where a fringe, roadside stand of trees has been left to shield a viewer's eyes from the desolation beyond--a Potemkin Village of greenery geared to soothe eyes and conscience.

It is interesting how the landscape tradition in painting is used in these environmental critiques through the unconventional use of color, which in the hands of these artists becomes an innovative formal element. Philip Govedare, in his oils on canvas Excavation #3 and Flood, depicts aerial scenes in which the land and sky blend together in a mix of pollution-tainted natural and unnatural hues. No factories or cars are in sight, and the culprit could just as well be the "unintended consequence of the human impact on a fragile environment" as the calculated machinations of industry. In either case, they make for haunting panoramas. The mixed-media paintings of Canadian Margaretha Bootsma, on the other hand, leave no doubt who is to blame for environmental blight. Her shoreline views with murky, shallow waters and heavy skies have a dirty haze over them, like looking through a filthy window. In Construction II, a mammoth industrial structure is parked right in the water's edge, just beyond the bathers and strollers. Yet particularly disturbing is the fact these weekenders seem totally oblivious to the state of things, as if the presence of such conditions no longer phases them.

It is difficult to know what to make of Adam Sorensen's electric landscapes, in which normal mountains, water and vegetation are rendered in the most artificial, Day-Glo-like colors, another instance of familiar grandeur and alien effect. Sorensen describes his technique as "a liberal misuse of color," and the result resembles another poisoned, chemically altered natural habitat. His Hide Out, with its dark cliffs and high-key colors, is a forbidding, strangely compelling scene, like stumbling into Mordor on acid.

Particularly impressive are Cynthia Camlin's large-scale watercolor/acrylic/ink paintings on paper from her Extremities series, which are both above- and below-surface portraits of arctic ice, broken from the ice pack and adrift at sea. Movingly executed, they float as the proverbial "tip of the iceberg," contrasting the minimal remnants of exposed ice to the immense submerged ice forms attached below. They seem almost mammalian, like whales flashing their humps as they cruise below the surface. They are some of the most eloquent images of the exhibit.

The sculptural component of the exhibit is both earthy and, well, feathery. Jan Hopkins creates vessels and basket-like forms from found skins, shells and rinds that exude an intelligent optimism about alternative resources. Susan Robb has two installation-size works in the show. Her muddled reference to Walter de Maria's famous 1977 outdoor installation Lighting Field, which she has transformed into a symbol of the animal kingdom's surrender to "ecological assault," just does not click. Conceptually confusing, its combination of materials and forms is rather cold, and the intended "narrative of triumph and destruction" does not resonate. More successful is her audio piece Signal Transduction Knowledge Environment in which she re-creates how plants exchange ecological information to their mutual benefit, whispering to each other, "It's in the air; it's in the water."

Two Washington sculptors offer beautifully crafted, unique perspectives on the environment. Matt Sellars' hand carved and painted trawlers stranded on a lifeless, waterless plain is a powerful image of oceanic changes and a diminishing, over-fished resource. Craig Langager's dolled-up, mutated birds made from feathers, urethane and shell/bone are an amusing commentary on our technological tinkering with the food chain, animal genetics, and meeting the demands of human consumption. His Tille, All Primped and Ready for Wall Street with its Phyllis Diller hairdo, feather/faux-fur coat, and painted nails is a clever combination of twisted human attributes and misguided science.

No exhibit of contemporary Northwest environmental art would be complete without John Grade, whose sculptural projects epitomize the "artist and nature as co-agents" theme of the show. He has introduced a fresh paradigm into environmental art by which he creates art through landscape. Collector, constructed from a latticework of laminated teak wood, was immersed for one year in the waters off the Washington coast, where it became host to oysters, seaweed, shells and barnacles. Removed from the bay and its oysters harvested, the piece with its remaining marine debris was transported to the Utah desert. During the journey, it acquired bug guts and road dust. There, it was suspended in a framework for local birds and insects to feast on. The work on view is the end result, a sculpture constantly in transition, added to, and subtracted from via the environment. By relinquishing ultimate control over his art, Grade allows nature to finish--or perpetuate--the piece, leaving a history of the process.

There is a mutual reinforcement in BAM's triangulation of Robb's audio sculpture, Langager's Tille and Grade's Collector. Robb's work, with its incantation of "It's in the air; it's in the water," serves as a background narration to Collector's double environmental experience, while Langager's birds are often an instrument of these various processes. Part of the intrigue of this exhibit is the way individual works collaborate in revealing the nuances of an entwined ecology.

Photography and printmaking play a significant role in Critical Messages. Idahoan Laura McPhee's evocative chromogenic prints of open range and forest scenes in Custer County are poetic portraits of isolated areas with only hints of a human presence that nevertheless leaves its mark. The photography of Washington's Chris Jordan is practically indecipherable from painting. His "Running the Numbers" series is composed of detailed, large-scale, ink-jet prints which are composites of thousands of smaller photographs that create handsome yet nightmarish landscapes out of the staggering statistics on human consumption. Plastic Bottles seems at first like an immense pointillist abstraction until it registers as a sea of empty discards representing a mosaic of industries--plastics (ergo petroleum), paper, commodification of water, processed beverages--on a staggering, yet very real scale.

The vastness of the landscapes portrayed or captured in these works and the iconic West, which in its immensity would seem impervious to actions of mere mortals, is striking. In Critical Messages we are the beast who, wittingly or not, manages to cumulatively and negatively violate many forms of natural beauty. This exhibit appeals, though, to the sensitive, intelligent side of the beast which, like in the fable, may redeem us in the end.

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