Sunday, April 27, 2014

Art and science at the Urban Ecology Center

Visual Reflections: A Printmaker Collective

“The challenge is immense.” The phrase lingers in my mind as I slowly circumnavigate the room, reading stories of environmental restoration and seeing artists’ representations of those stories. The “challenge” refers to what artist Douglas Bosley offers as a “call to arms.” Bosley teamed up with Kingsley Dixon, an ecologist in Australia, via the twenty-first century technology of Skype. In an exhibit label the artist outlined the specific challenge:

“For two decades, a million acres of western Australian land were cleared per year. Kingsley Dixon’s mission is to restore a million of those acres…. The challenge is immense. The land is essentially wasteland. …Nevertheless, Dixon’s group and many others are building the science and the solutions to make this dream possible.”

Bosley’s lithograph of ghostly flowers and a monumental “1M” rising from a barren landscape attempts to express that million acre challenge.

For Yvette Pino, founder of Bench Press Events and organizer of this project, the challenge was to bring together fine artists and ecologists like Bosley and Dixon to stimulate dialogue and collaboration. The success of her effort is displayed along the gallery walls.

The challenge for Bosley, as for each of the 12 artists in the project, was to create an image inspired by conversations and, in some cases, interactions with the collaborating ecologist.

The prosaic title of the exhibit, “Visual Reflections: A Printmaker Collective,” doesn’t begin to describe the complexity of the project that led to these prints hanging on the gallery walls. The theme of ecology is expressed directly in the premise of the project. Pino invited twelve fine art printmakers from around the U.S. to collaborate with twelve ecologists from as far away as Australia and China.

An untitled woodcut by Colorado artist Kim Hindman superimposes terrestrial and aquatic life forms on a map of New York harbor. The spatially ambiguous composition emphasizes the ragged edges of the famous estuary. A text panel identifies restoration of seawalls and the water’s edge as the specialty of ecologist Dr. Marcha Johnson, Hindman’s collaborator.

The colorful, boldly abstract patterning in “Return, Take Over,” a serigraph by Wisconsin artist Katie Garth, might be mistaken as merely decorative. But the conceptual rigor in the work as well as the interdependence of printmaker and ecologist are hinted at in the accompanying narrative. In the artist’s words, “John [Reiger] explained several restoration strategies… each using varying levels of intervention. Mentally, I juxtaposed the initial disturbance…with its subsequent restoration. Both altered the landscape, but with opposite intentions…. ‘Return, Take Over’ depicts the cohabitation of growth and decay in order to represent this duality in human disruption.”

A densely detailed and somber mezzotint of a subtly surreal scene hangs in a far corner of the gallery. Leaves sprout from oddly geometric rocks. Fantastical creatures seemingly made from splinters of wood and stone march like crustaceans—or scorpions—through a hard, crystalline landscape. The mood is dark, foreboding. The title, “LD.4334.1409,” which may refer to scientific enumeration, adds obfuscation to mystery.

The ominous mood comes as a surprise after viewing the rest of the exhibit. While diverse in other ways, the overall tone of the show is bright, upbeat. This is perhaps the greater surprise. Sunny optimism is not necessarily to be expected in an art exhibit about ecology in a time when climate change seems to be trending inexorably towards climate chaos. But while the haunting mezzotint with the enigmatic title may be more consistent with such a vision, don’t come to this exhibit looking for stereotypes.

In fact, don’t go looking for this exhibit in a traditional art gallery. The challenge for the uninitiated is to locate the exhibition space. The flagship branch of the Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park has had arts programming as one of its missions since its inception. The lower level Community Room of the Center was designed with art exhibitions in mind. The austere white cube of traditional gallery spaces, however, is another stereotype to dismiss here. Viewing the art may involve maneuvering around a room set up for the educational games that regularly bring hundreds of schoolchildren to the center to learn about the natural world.

That those children may enjoy seeing on the walls serious art geared for an adult audience is not a bonus. It’s a deliberate strategy to establish interconnecting experiences. Ecology and a culture of scientific inquiry pervade everything the center does. The positive tone of this exhibit may be a consequence of that kind of sensibility.

Optimism also may be a motivating attitude for the ecologists. All specialize in the forward-thinking field of environmental restoration. The impetus for the project was the 2013 World Conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), which was held in Madison, WI. All of the ecologists chosen for the project are SER members and the prints were first displayed last year at the Conference in Madison.

Several of the artists went beyond the use of imagery to express ecological principles in their work. For example, artist Heather Buechler teamed up with ecologist Debbie Mauer, who both reside in Illinois. After hiking together in prairie preserves and discussing the balance of nature, they harvested big bluestem and panic grass from one of the sites. Their collaboration continued into the studio where they processed the grasses into handmade paper pulp “to create a paper that is tied to the place that inspired it.” The image Buechler printed on the handmade paper, entitled “Diversity in Small Parcels,” is a complex layering of grass stems, the watershed of the Illinois River, and a silhouette of Lake Michigan.

Several of the prints were even framed in unfinished wood recovered from discarded industrial palettes. The recycling effort is intended to resonate with scientific methodologies; it also takes the concept of the cycle of nature beyond metaphor.

“Visual Reflections: A Printmaker Collective,” is on display through June. The Urban Ecology Center is located at 1500 East Park Place, next to Riverside Park. Hours are on its website.

One final challenge: if you arrive at this unique gallery when no one else is there you may have to grope along the wall to find the light switch. At the Urban Ecology Center no energy is wasted. Creative energy, however, is continually being generated.

An edited version of this review first appeared in Art City.

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