Thursday, January 15, 2009

Environmental art

New group exhibition at Tacoma Community College

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan. 15, 2009
Pictured "Campfire," by Karen La Grave

Environmental art. What’s that? Does that mean art about environmental issues or art that helps in some way, say by using recycled materials, to preserve the environment? The Environmental Art Exhibition at The Gallery at Tacoma Community College seems to be a little of both.

There are paintings and photographs picturing environmentally sensitive areas, such as Zachary Mazur’s photographs of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation; such as a piece of funky pop-oriented sculpture by Jenni Denekas that’s all about milk shakes and factory farming; and there are sculptures from recycled materials by Julia Haack and Bret Lyon.

But I’m a cynic. I can’t help but feel that this show does little to preserve the environment or teach us much of anything we don’t already know. And if I look at the art as art rather than concentrating on the message, I must say it’s pretty average. There are landscape paintings that despite the emphasis on the environment are just landscapes — some abstract and some impressionistic, and none particularly better or worse than OK. And far too much of the show is taken up with photographs that are more documentary than artistic.

Having said that, I will concentrate on the good stuff.

Mazur’s photographs of the Hanford site are hauntingly beautiful, depicting vast expanses of open spaces with minimal human presence. The muted colors, sunsets and windswept skies look cold yet inviting. Everything appears to be recently deserted: a gate numbered “117A,” power lines stretched across expanses of open field with a single tumbleweed in the foreground, a school desk standing seat deep in a large, placid lake (or is it a flooded field?). If everything in this show had the power of suggestion these photographs carry it would truly be an environmental art exhibition.

Dorothy McCuistion’s six panel paintings of an old golf course depicting the destruction of animal habitat also have a hauntingly foreboding aspect. I like her acid raw colors and simple drawing style.

Minimalist wood and metal sculptures by Julia Haack and Bret Lyon have clean and sensuous shapes and nice surface textures, but I must say the very interesting wall statements on these works did not make a lot of sense to me. First off, it was not clear which sculpture was by which artist. Lyon explained in a statement that he (who is right handed) sculpted with his left hand to “disassociate with the primary hand just as the artist has disassociated the scraps by discarding them.” I don’t know who he means by “the artist.” Surely not himself. But “the artist” that made whatever the scraps came from was not the person who discarded the scraps; surely that was someone else. So while this statement is intriguing, I wish Lyon would tell me what it means.

One of Karen La Grave’s two acrylic paintings is excellent. It is called "Campfire." It pictures a deer standing next to a campfire, and in the background the woods are on fire. The environmental statement is quite clear. The paint application is loose and sketchy with a very sparse and dry look.

Other works that I was particularly impressed with were the three gouache and graphite drawings by Carson Murdach. I call these drawings rather than paintings because of the strong graphic component and sparse use of color. They are line drawings with some areas colored in. They picture the horrifying effects of over-population and over-industrialization by contrasting dense areas of housing, etc. with open spaces. The brittle line quality and the contrast of white spaces and densely packed areas of line and color are quite powerful graphically. My favorite is "Risk of Insolvency," a long, thin painting that shows a fleet of tankers approaching a spit of land that is overcrowded with factories and houses. It is as if the city and the ships are at war with each other. The ships are not bringing goods to the city; they are bringing more and more environmental destruction.

[Tacoma Community College, Environmental Art Exhibition, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, through Feb. 27, 6501 South 19th Street, Building 5A, Tacoma]

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