“A Sanctuary for Weeds”: Social Ecologies at the Gallery at Industry City
Social Ecologies: Curated by Greg Lindquist, at the Gallery at Industry City
December 10, 2015 to February 21, 2016
Thursday to Sunday, 12-6pm and by appointment.
A contemporary landscape painter himself, curator Greg Lindquist offers in this important exhibition an array of strategies to address the notion of environment, ranging from simply acknowledging a deep connection with the earth to documenting eco-destruction to making art that ventures remedies to the crisis. “Social Ecologies” comes out of Lindquist’s interest in the “intertwined relationship between humans and the natural world [that has existed] for centuries,” as he put it in an essay in the November 2015 issue of The Brooklyn Rail, stressing that we now face an existential crisis brought on by runaway climate change. In fact, humans have been significantly altering the biosphere since the early hunters wiped out the big fauna and agriculture began its slow degradation of the soil stock of the planet. There is no Garden to go back to; humans must create a balance with nature never before imagined or achieved.
The 1970s saw artists exploring new ideas of their relationship with nature. Robert Smithson introduced an investigation of art and place – and how each informed and identified the other. He took the work of art out of the gallery and located it in an outdoor setting, and at the same time he put a signifier of the natural site into the gallery, thus demonstrating what he called “non-site”. He located his art not just in a natural setting but in the earth itself, penetrating soil and water.
Charles Simonds is represented by enlarged stills from “Birth,” a film in which he symbolically gives birth to himself out of the earth – specifically, the pit in New Jersey where Simonds has for a long time extracted the clay to make his art. Simonds’ art is about culture from the ground up; the ground is essential for the building of culture.
British-born Rackstraw Downes declared he had no “New World sense of the antithesis between unspoiled nature and human culture; a landscape to me is a place where people live and work.” (Quoted by Stephen Maine in “Rackstraw Downes: Infrastructures”, Art in America Nov. 2010.) His pictures are horizontal scans of a view, including finely-tuned details, that construct pictorial space with curved lines creating a picture that feels distorted compared to traditional landscape painting. We are clearly shown that the human vision of nature is anthropocentric. Downes simultaneously makes a passionate pitch for objective empirical reality as he paradoxically displays its biases by curving space to establish the artist’s viewpoint. An art that successfully combines these “oppositions” pins viewers with a double vision that puts the onus on us to form our own understanding of what is going on.
Mary Miss and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, artists who also started working in the 1970’s, represent the land art movement and feminism, both of which critiqued earlier notions of art making its “mark” on nature and instead took a receptive, integrative stance. Along with a younger artist, Ellie Irons, they put their work at the service of natural topologies and human systems. Laderman Ukeles, since 1977 the artist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation, is represented by her Sanitation Manifesto, 1984 in which she writes poetically as artist, feminist, wife, mother about the responsibilities of “maintenance.”
Miss has built a long career of public sculpture that marries art, nature and humanity, and working collaboratively, an example of which is the South Cove Project at Battery Park. It’s challenging to conveying Miss’s work in a gallery setting, but the small schematic drawing here of a site in Indianapolis does the job nicely. The project employs mirrors and beams of red light to visually connect inhabitants with their streams and waterways. Miss takes in a work site experiencing its geological features, history and surrounds to create a vision that amplifies and harmonizes with Alexander Pope’s conception of the genius loci. Miss has written that Broadway is the “native American ridgeline” and intrinsically important to the experience of Manhattan.
Irons transformed a corner of the gallery into a “sanctuary for weeds” collected from native Bushwick plants. A helpful booklet explains Why Weeds?: “Co-evolved with humans, they are well-suited to do the tough work of greening a heavily altered anthropogenic landscape.”
Alyson Vieira’s environmentalism lies in her choice of materials and her historicism. She employs baled post-industrial plastics to build giant forms that suggest archaic ruins. Making art using the industrial vernacular material – recycling the recycled – posits a culture that is constantly being built, decaying and then rebuilt. “Natural resources” are no longer timber and stone but plastics that can never break down – themselves by-products of modernity’s life-blood: carbon in its solid, liquid and gas forms.
Alexis Rockman’s Loam, 2008, is a witty painting that can be read both as a cracked tooth being mined by ants in which seedlings are taking root – and a painting from Morris Louis’s Veil series. This is art about layered ecologies: human host, plant and animal parasites – except, it could be asked, who is the ultimate destructive parasite on the planet if not, ironically, the only one capable of making art?
Soviet period bath building, Tsakltubo, a photograph by Georgian artist Gio Sumbadze, examines the recent past showing a crumbling Soviet building overgrown with new vegetation. Soviet-era architecture in an exhibition with these themes might have us thinking Chernobyl and accounts of driving for days through dead forests. Yet the hopeful note of verdant wild growth pushing through the crumbling concrete in this photograph offers a post-eco-apocalyptic vision akin to Margaret Atwood’s fiction. One is allowed to imagine a future welcoming back the forest and building on the ruins of the old world in an egalitarian, human culture integrated and interdependent with nature.