Monday, September 8th, 2008

Nature Interrupted: Curated by Elga Wimmer

Chelsea Art Museum
556 West 22nd Street
New York City
212 255 0719

July 5 to September 6, 2008

Joan Backes Carpet of Leaves 2008; over one thousand leaves, individually placed, 228 x 84 inches, Courtesy of the Artist
Joan Backes, Carpet of Leaves 2008; over one thousand leaves, individually placed, 228 x 84 inches, Courtesy of the Artist
Anya Gallaccio Like We've Never Met 2003; found mahoghany glazed doors. each: 91 x 26 inches, Courtesy Lehmann Maupin NY.
Anya Gallaccio, Like We've Never Met 2003; found mahoghany glazed doors. each: 91 x 26 inches, Courtesy Lehmann Maupin NY.

What do we do when the experience of nature itself is changing to a point where climatic conditions have grown both bizarre and dangerous? Curated by gallerist Elga Wimmer, “Nature Interrupted” begins with a troubling notion, namely, that our treatment of the external world has created a toxic environment that cannot be rescued. Indeed, some of the art is heavily apocalyptic, being inspired by natural events that are not imagined but very real: the flooding of New Orleans, caused by a hurricane; and the tsunami that overwhelmed Southeast Asia, causing the deaths of more than 200,000 people. While it is sometimes hard to peg the art being shown to an actual event, the message is clear: we are destroying our environment in ways that are resulting in permanent change. Coming from several different countries, the twelve artists* in the exhibition have been at pains to express both the beauty of nature and the sometimes sublime attributes of its devastation. Because many of these images are magically transcendent in their expression, even when they document environmental atrocities, one could easily downplay the damage that has been done. But that would undo the premise of the show, which is to demonstrate just how much injury has been done, much of it apparently irreparable.

Nature, which furnishes our imagination with metaphors, what we call figurative language, is on the edge of disaster. Global warming is already here, no longer a distant reality. Artists, like everyone else in the world, are worried about the consequences of global warming in the natural world; moreover, they realize that the damage is psychic and imaginative as well as terribly real. We look to nature for a nearly limitless repository of metaphor, using its imagery to invigorate our prose and poetry. Destruction of our natural resources thus becomes a matter affecting not only physical reality but also the imagination, central to artists’ inner lives. In this sense, “Nature Interrupted” constitutes a warning to its viewers of the threat to our survival we ourselves have brought about, as well as a valiant attempt to maintain high standards of creativity in an increasingly diminished world. Wimmer’s choice of artists helps us navigate the disturbed terrain of our situation, which day by day grows more insistently troubled. Her show demands that we look at work suggestive of a reality that is hard to bear and even harder to honestly contemplate.

Joan Backes offered a carpet of leaves taken from places all over the world. Large and set down flat on the ground, the carpet reminds us of the remarkable beauty of fallen leaves—from trees whose survival may well be threatened. Backes also contributed a series of small paintings that render the bark of different trees that also are in danger of dying as a species. Backes’s technical skill, evident in her small panels, poignantly reminds of the beauty we will be missing in a short time; her work documents the diversity that is being taken away from us. The artist’s thoughtful works are well deserving of scrutiny; they highlight the ongoing destruction of nature by being highly specific renderings of a landscape that will most likely change permanently within our lifetime. Alexis Rockman contributed one painting to the show: Capitol Hill (2005). The work, a smallish acrylic on canvas, points out the effects of nature taking over the Capitol, which is covered by a kind of green moss. Rocks, yellow flowers, trees, and foliage make up half the painting in the foreground. Nature is out of control, ironically swamping Capitol Hill, the site of much inaction and indifference regarding the fate of our environment.

Helen Brough Deluge #1 2007; pencil on vellum, 22 x 30 inches, Courtesy Chelsea Art Museum
Helen Brough, Deluge #1 2007; pencil on vellum, 22 x 30 inches, Courtesy Chelsea Art Museum

Helen Brough’s pencil drawings on vellum are so beautifully rendered the viewer almost forgets the destruction accompanying the phenomena she depicts. In Deluge #1 (2007), she has drawn a long wave erupting into foam after peaking in height; the view of the long curl of the breaking wave tends to distance the viewer from what is happening. But, one hopes, distance is not the same as indifference; as the wave falls upon shallow water, we remember just how powerful the sea is—and how unresponsive it is to those caught in its grips. Here nature is an untamable force. Osmo Rauhala’s video projection of a flock of birds beginning to rise as a swarm above fields lingers in mind as a collective portrait of group behavior, although one wonders whether we will continue to see such sights as time goes on. Jon Elliott’s painting, entitled Plague of Excess (2006) presents his audience with a reddish sunset that is quite menacing and also quite beautiful. In the center of the composition we see televisions falling into the water, whose red color suggests lava or radioactivity. This is an image not of impending but of actual apocalypse, expressed by a resonant color scheme.

All the artists in “Nature Interrupted” contribute to a greater environmental awareness. It seems, however, that nature remains fecund, capable of extraordinary beauty, even when its vulnerability is being emphasized. The show’s imagery occupies a wide range, including such desolate images as Katie Holten’s desolate sculpture, The Black Tree (2005), made with cardboard and black gaffer’s tape; and Chus Garcia-Fraile’s Protected Zone (2007), a photographic print in which an escalator leading nowhere has been placed among the dark greens of forest foliage. These images are meant to warn, but they inadvertently seduce with their beauty as well. Wimmer’s point, that nature cannot stand up to our destructive activities, remains true, although oddly the attractiveness of the work tells a different story, one of affirmation and even hope. Even in decline, the natural world is glorious.