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Sunday, April 12, 2009

The lay of the land

Guilford Art Center
411 Church St., Guilford, (203) 453-5947
Seduced: the Relevance of Landscape in the 21st Century
Through May 8, 2008

Seduced: the Relevance of Landscape in the 21st Century is a finely organized show at the Guilford Art center. Guest curator Samantha Pinckney, with the art historical importance of landscape art in mind, has selected a group of artists whose work all references nature. The 21st century twist here is that they view nature through the prism of its present ecological fragility.

The contemplative stance is not one of attempting to reproduce—or conjure—a vision of the sublime. Rather, the work acknowledges beauty insomuch as it us under threat. The encroachment of development, technology, climate change and other environmental stressors on nature is foregrounded. And yet—here is where Pinckney's choices have been particularly astute—these works warn at the same time as they warm the viewer, hence the relevant "seduction." The effect reminds me of a conversation I had with painter Jerry Saladyga, whose work addresses similar themes. "In some ways," Saladyga told me, "desolation becomes beautiful."

"Beautiful" is certainly an appropriate word to use for many of these pieces. Leila Daw's (Web) mixed media paintings and drawings, particularly the multi-panel "Doesn't Stand a Chance" and "Could Have Been a Great City," depict imaginative environments scarred by deforestation, with just trickles of blue water and patches of greenery. This is forbidding terrain, the life sucked from it. The layering of imagery and use of text suggests that the stress on these lands is human-made. Still, there is the seduction Pinckney refers to, the way the viewer is drawn in by metallic overlays, by the print-like staining of the canvas, by the selective use of glitter.

The seduction in Diane Burko's oil paintings comes through the buttery swirls of paint. Side by side, the paintings "1907, Okpilak Diptych After Ernest Leffingwell" and "2004, Okpilak Diptych After Matt Nolan #2" offer a comparison of the same mountainous region, revealing a snow and ice covering in retreat. This ecological fact, with all the dire portents it implies, is signaled by Burko's pigment choice. Whites swirl with violets and blue in the former, browns and blacks dominate in the latter.

Karen Glaser's (Web) large pigment prints—photographs shot in the springs and swamps of Florida—document vibrant ecosystems that are under threat. That threat is felt viscerally in the two "Fire in the Swamp" photos, where a haze of smoke envelops a stand of scrub pine and palm trees. It is implied in "Green Gator," a compositionally stark image depicting an alligator floating with a couple of turtles swimming away from it. From right to left, the water the ancient reptile floats in is banded deep emerald, aquamarine and then a luminous yellow green. The latter tint suggests the noxious presence of algae mixed with industrial chemicals. Perhaps most portentous is "Dust Storm," an image shot under shallow water. The swamp floor is muddy and something has stirred it up. Dirt, mud and small twigs are tossed as in a windstorm in a threatening light. Amid the agitated debris, small fish look like refugees fleeing war or a natural disaster.

Larry Schwarm's three photos deal directly with a human impact on the environment: controlled burnings on the Kansas prairie. These burnings represent, in effect, humans taking the torch from nature. Where fires long a natural part of the prairie ecosystem—clearing out invasive plants and encouraging new growth—agricultural industry has sought to systematize and domesticate the process. Fundamentally, though, whether naturally occurring or born of human intervention, this is destruction in the service of creation. Schwarm's photos speak to that duality. "Breathless-Southern Edwards County" is an explosion of flaming fury while "Smoldering Pasture at Sunset, North of Empire, Kansas," captures a meditative horizon in the aftermath of a fire.

Several of Joseph Saccio's large sculptures are shown in this show. As I have noted in writing about Saccio's work previously-including about the specific pieces shown here-he also deals in metaphors of death and rebirth that pack an ecological subtext. (I've written about Saccio here, here and here.) In works like "Once a Tree" and "Memorial: From the Fire" Saccio uses a mix of found natural, processed and manufactured materials.

Natural materials (leaves, twigs, branches, bone) mix with plaster and glass in Joy Wulke's cautionary sculptures (Web). In "Wave From the Future to the Past," a twisted vine-like piece of wood splitting into two grasping branches is imprisoned in a glass display mounted on a glass pedestal. The piece evokes thoughts of extinction, of humanity walled off from nature both by physical barriers and by time.

Joseph Smolinski is also branching out in his work. His three small pencil drawings and the large archival inkjet print "Satellite" were inspired, if that's the proper word, by the profusion of cellphone transmission towers (and the occasional attempt to fob them off as mutant "trees"). While there is a wryness of approach in Smolinski's drawings, they raise serious questions about the intrusion of technology on the natural environment. These questions raise issues of aesthetics—the "Franken trees" are ugly—as well as environmental issues (might these proliferating transmissions have an impact on health?).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Joseph Smolinski is also branching out..." -terrible pun.

3:45 PM

Anonymous Leila said...

Hey, cool review, you really got the point! Thanks!

8:34 PM


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