Published Wednesday, April 4, 2012 in The Gazette print edition and online at www.gazette.net
By: Claudia Rousseau
Nine artists explore environmental questions
An exhibition probing the crossover between environmental issues and art now is on view at the Gibbs Street and Kaplan Galleries of the VisArts Center in Rockville. “Field Work,” curated by artist Susan Main, brings the creative ideas of nine contemporary artists who are involved in work that questions ways that art can message important environmental concerns, and establish a “vital and dynamic relationship between art and issues that affect community.” Working metaphorically “in the field,” all of the artists are looking to provoke the viewer to contemplate questions involving place, space and time.
Dan Allende and Ian Cox both studied Interdisciplinary Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, a major that presumably led them to become interested in performance as well as installation pieces. Their collaborative adventure featured in this exhibit is entitled “Up in Smoke,” conceived around the ancient problem of how to transmit messages across great distances with the smallest of means. Their answer was smoke signals sent from San Francisco to Rockville with a Shaker saying about finding what’s essential and necessary. Four “sky watching blankets” stitched with wind speed maps across the U.S. also are on display. The beauty of this project is its fragility. Of course the smoke signals didn’t arrive in Rockville — or, carried by wind and clouds perhaps they did, as something else.
Also concerned with time, and the changes it creates in the environment, Hugh Pocock proposes a picnic lunch in a specific site in Baltimore for 2032, forcing a kind of updated memento mori effect — remembering that some of us, and parts of the environment, might not be here in 20 years.
Very compelling is the conceptual piece created by Margaret Boozer and J.J. McCracken, two local artists who often work in parallel subject realms. Their work invites visitors to climb a slope of drying grass sod applied to a wooden armature to read the results of a rainfall calendar made of small plastic bags containing rainwater they collect on the roof of the Rockville building. A video monitoring the rooftop rain gauge is part of the work. “Waiting for Rain” is about water consumption and earth, it’s about how precious the rain is, and how we use it so wastefully. It is especially poignant considering the recent government findings concerning future global “water wars” that may ensue from the uncontrolled use of fresh water.
Selin Balci, an artist with scientific training, works with live organisms. Her videos and microbe-made “drawings” show the way that these tiny organisms form communities with boundaries they never cross as they compete for food resources. These form a microcosm of our own world. Her video “The World” features a world map onto which these struggles are tracked — a metaphor for our coming planetary struggles with climate change. It is both visually beautiful and discomforting.
Among my favorites is the work of Patterson Clark, both independently and in collaboration with photographer Lynn Cazabon. Clark literally prospects for materials from invasive plants. His wood block prints are made entirely from the plants that they portray, including the wood for the blocks and for the measuring devices placed next to the prints. The three pieces by Clark track that process, by hours and days, and by the length of garlic mustard stems. Even the “soot ink” used for the prints is from these weed plants. Part of his point is that the material abundance of these plants is totally wasted by just killing them. Harvested and subjected to an arduous process of turning them into everything he needs to make his art also is a comment on the fact that artists often use toxic substances to make art. They often don’t even realize that fact, even when the art itself is a commentary on the environment.
Cazabon’s photographic project is focused on the same weed plants and the ways they thrive despite every effort to ignore or kill them. They grow through the cracks and through the grates. They represent a kind of life force, even if it’s not the kind of life we may like. She and Clark made paper from a series of such weeds growing in Baltimore for a series called “Uncultivated” that is ongoing. They created pages reminiscent of Renaissance herbal compendiums, with delicately printed borders each portraying a plant with its Latin taxonomy. A color photograph of the weed in its natural habitat is in the center of each pigment inkjet print. Although there’s a sense of tongue-in-cheek humor here, the larger questions have to do with these “tiny pockets of wildness” in the urban landscape. We want to eliminate wildness in nature, to control it and trim it into obedience. This, Clark and Cazabon are suggesting, wastes a resource and misses something about nature as well.
The Gibbs Street Gallery, in the space that formerly was an unprofitable store, now is occupied by “Descent,” the installation piece by Jackson Martin. Martin focuses on a juxtaposition of nature and culture, beginning with a calculated manipulation of industrial materials like steel, wood, glass and plastic. He confronts these with ephemeral and delicate materials, such as plants, soil, water and light. These constructions are elegant and interventional. “Descent” involves seven plastic cones suspended from steel brackets. Each contains soil and a tiny cypress tree, a kind of plant that often is associated with suburban landscaping. The effect is something like a garden descending into the forced urban character of Rockville Town Center. Overall, this is a thoughtful and visually interesting exhibition that merits our attention.