Art and the Environment: An Exhibition Statement From Curator Kirsten Bengtson-Lykoudis
For artists, writers, philosophers, and prophets, the environment has long been a source of inspiration. From Siddhartha’s sacred Bodhi tree and Thoreau’s secluded Walden Pond to the magical forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and biblical tales of Eden, nature holds a mystical allure. But as lakes evaporate, trees burn, sea levels rise, and garbage piles up, the environment is increasingly under attack. As Puck exclaimed, “Lord, What fools these mortals be!”
Activists like Jane Goodall, Sir David Attenborough, Wangari Muta Maathai, and Greta Thunberg have battled the fossil fuel industry, wildlife poachers, real estate developers, polluting corporations, and corrupt politicians, motivating others to do the same. The artists in April’s exhibition, Art and the Environment, express their concern for the environment through insightful, nature-oriented work, giving it their own unique stamp.
Selected from over 5,000 artworks submitted to the annual NOT REAL ART grant, the pieces chosen for Art and the Environment represent high watermarks in creativity, innovation, and execution. This provocative band of painters, filmmakers, printmakers, photographers, and installation artists advocate for fragile ecosystems, responding to melting icebergs, wildfires, extreme weather, and rising seas. They alert us to toxins in urban environments, focus on the plight of endangered species, and give us a glimpse of our future—for better or worse.
Paradise Lost and Found
Jessie Rodriguez’s whimsical linocut animation Rainbow Tree captures nature’s lost innocence to the child-like strains of a music box. Collage artist Marc Alain constructs a heavenly tableau of animals, insects, and plants that celebrate the act of creation itself. Meridel Rubenstein’s luminous triptych Ehmad and His Boat, Central Marshes Side depicts vanishing wetlands in Southern Iraq near the possible site of the Garden of Eden. Susan Chambers cultivates lush gardens full of native and ruderal plants in her backyard, reinventing them on canvas. Lionel Cruet Morales’s primal image of a mangrove swamp vibrates with color and sound, conveying the sense of a danger zone and pointing out the absurdity of destroying this natural weapon against erosion.
Devan Horton’s decadent trash landscapes reveal the rampant consumerism behind them. Her view of a horizonless dump under an ominous blue sky is a wake-up call to rein in waste. As a child, Matt Steinke lived near a hazardous waste facility. His installation Hazardous Phenotypes uses robotic sculptures to make searing commentary about the dangers lurking in our backyards. Maru Garcia’s futuristic installation Vacuoles: Bioremediating Cultures includes ceramic vessels full of tainted soil and a database of lead-contaminated parks, schools, and childcare centers in Southeast LA.
Wilderness Under Siege
Resa Blatman’s abstract diptych Blaze captures the destructive beauty of fire. Hannah Rothstein’s ironic images of ravaged national parks adopt a vintage travel poster motif to illustrate sobering views of desolation. Mixed-media artist Bryan David Griffith combines beeswax, photographs, tree trunks, and charred lumber to explore the cyclic nature of forest fires and the reasons for their proliferation. Lizzy Martinez’s surreal image of a woman in her underwear surrounded by flames radiates tension and wonder. The cryptic scenario invites viewers to fill in the blanks.
Rising Seas and Toxic Spills
Mixed-media artist Toby Zallman addresses the proliferation of plastic in oceans, rivers, and lakes. Jennifer Celio’s Rising and Falling (Antarctica) combines found objects with works on canvas and paper to depict rising sea levels. On a street corner in Berkeley, Juana Alicia Araiza’s apocalyptic mural The Spill/El Derrame illustrates the impact of an oil spill on the ocean’s fragile ecosystem. Inspired by poetry, Labkhand Olfatmanesh’s experimental film Post Cyclone provides a haunting response to a catastrophic storm in India.
Tina Alberni’s claustrophobic Flirting with Extinction portrays endangered North Carolina wolves howling at the moon as subdivisions chip away at their natural habitat. Hilary Baker’s Predators series is a sly riff on the predatory nature of urban development in wildlife habitats. Jada Fabrizio’s staged photograph of a freight train veering off the rails is eerily prescient. Her recent images of posed animal figurines draw our attention to the fate of dwindling wildlife. In her work on invasive species, April Flanders uses printmaking, paper cutouts, and installation to illustrate the effects of colliding organisms in a rapidly shifting environment.