Love Canal: Joan Linder at Mixed Greens
Joan Linder: Project Sunshine at Mixed Greens
October 15 to November 14, 2015
531 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11h avenues
New York City, 212 331 8888
In her final show at Mixed Greens (this much-valued gallery is, sadly, closing) Joan Linder trains her lucid, maniacal drawing practice on a notorious environmental disaster close to her Buffalo home. This 1970s toxic phenomenon known as “Love Canal,” a name that must have made Burroughs, Pynchon and DeLillo giggle, confirmed an emerging environmental zeitgeist, fed by revelations of governmental fecklessness verging on murder. Linder documents this original superfund wasteland –– from which working class families were finally removed after unheard-of birth defect and cancer rates, and which remains fenced off forty years later –– by recording with her indefatigable pen, across the folds of accordion notebooks, seemingly every chain-link and blade of grass of the full perimeter. Displayed on wrap-around shelves, these encyclopeadic landscapes include indications of the site’s surrounding ecosystem of weeds and highways, telephone lines and old tires, much as in Rackstraw Downes’s deceptively neutral vistas, or analogously, in the household clutter of Dawn Clements’s panoramic interiors. In addition, Linder’s circumambulating drawings pack a punch as a group, as a project, that has something to do with Gordon Matta-Clark’s or Peter Fend’s subversive mappings of ideas hiding in plain sight –– or rather, site.
You could argue that in the past Linder has commented obliquely on post-feminist discourse, by rendering a colossally unwashed pile of dishes; and that the antiseptic delusions of science were slyly addressed in her exhaustive drawings from the inner sancta of biology and pathology labs. But with the Love Canal project Linder raises the political ante. Inaugurating a pure research vector, the artist displays in glass-topped vitrines neat rows of official reports and memos, blown leaves from the disaster’s decades-long paper trail –– or rather, they are illusionistic pen and ink renderings of such documents. Text has been caught before in Linder’s observational web, but in situ, casually strewn along with the books, signs and scraps of paper of a larger still life. The new document drawings for the first time take an overt angle of attack, and without giving up an inch of empiricism.
There is intention in the laboriousness and redundancy of the artist’s pilgrimage across these typewritten cover pages, fuzzy photographs, and charts and graphs, which are clearly the tip of a file-cabinet-and-microfiche iceberg. Linder’s stubborn simulacrum of bureaucratic paralysis means to cast a dispiriting pall –– but also, a fascinating one. A weird sort of fun, even, develops out of Linder’s characteristic obsession with every trompe-l’oeil detail of her quarry, including the mimeograph burn, feedback distortion and document decay of the “originals” –– which seem, in fact, to be xeroxes of xeroxes of xeroxes.
Each typed letter of each hall-of-mirrors document is rendered as legibly as the source allows. For those inclined to dip in, the rewards get more Kafkaesque, with chains of inference that run beyond mere corporate greed into shameful state secrets: ultimately to the infamous Project Sunshine (Linder’s exhibition title), an Atomic Energy Commission program that snatched bodies for the purpose of studying long-term health effects in the event of nuclear war. At the very least, Linder shows that Hooker Chemical, Love Canal’s toxifier, was a deep player in the military-industrial complex, like any large rustbelt concern. The limitless electrical capacity of Niagara Falls, into which Love Canal drains, is what put the region at the epicenter of the environmentally oblivious Cold War economy, before it plunged. Perhaps there’s something in the water, as Linder’s artist colleagues at SUNY Buffalo, notably Steven Kurz, have put a research-oriented, activist stamp on art from the area, to which Linder is in the process of making a necessary contribution (the Love Canal project is ongoing). Mark Lombardi was also from the region, Syracuse being a few stops along the Erie Canal; and it is worth pointing out that Linder’s research, like Lombardi’s, is not conspiratorial, in that the art is built entirely from public records –– known facts –– released documents.
Some conspiracy theories, however, turn out to be true: for starters, there’s the still-partly-classified Project Sunshine (yet another name, like Love Canal –– or Hooker Chemical, for crying out loud –– that would put a dystopian black humorist to shame). And Linder alludes, with a few cover pages of meticulously redrawn bureaucratrese, to a far worse government conspiracy: a local adjunct of the Manhattan Project, it seems, that was run out of the University of Rochester. The title of this report includes the phrase “CHANGES IN BODY TEMPERATURE IN RESPONSE TO URANIUM INJECTIONS,” and presumably is related to known U.S. Government programs in which deliberately misinformed, unwitting prisoners, chiefly minority, were irradiated for “science” –– sometimes fatally. Which is not all that far from concurrent experiments by Nazi doctors on concentration camp inmates (although these, at least, ceased with the war’s end; the Rochester document is dated 1946.) What Linder seems to be asking is: How many pages of obfuscatory memoranda does it take to get from there to signing off on building housing and schools on a known toxic waste dump?
Exhibited along with the documents and the accordion landscapes are two large, grandly luxurious color ink drawings, meticulous delineations of the interweaving patterns of weeds in an unkempt backyard –– presumably in Niagara County, maybe even on the overgrown site of Love Canal itself. (For that matter, in that locus of poisons it can’t matter very much which side of the superfund fence the ground is on.) Where pebbly dirt peeks through, the ink is shades of brown, contrasting with the green weeds above, which are outlined strategically with black. This consistent division of color from top to bottom layer makes for a crisply vibrating visual texture that at a distance approaches the richness of a William Morris endpaper design or a chinoiserie folding screen. Up close one sees the slight waver of a tireless hand, drawing a plot of ground at actual size, as if that inch-by-inch attention might bring, to scorched earth, a measure of remediation.