October 20, 2005
by KATHERINE ALMY
Why should artists bother about the fate of humanity?"asked Clive Bell, modern art critic and philosopher, in the early part of the last century. Bell was articulating one of the principle characteristics of modern art: Its lack of concern for the issues of the day. During the 19th and 20th centuries, what concerned artists was art --- color, line, form, paint. Everything else was crude and banal and somehow beneath them. This is a bit of an exaggeration and a gross simplification of the multiple aesthetic philosophies that were bandied about at the time, but that's another article. Suffice it to say that this art for art's sake attitude has played strongly into our current beliefs about art and artists.
Left: "GLOBAL WARNING" ACRYLIC PAINTING BY MICHELLE WATERS, 2005. PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GOLCHER.
But the trend could not last forever. How long can you go over the various properties of paint on canvas, or explore the abstraction of familiar objects? Eventually, people being people, they want to talk about themselves again. Especially in times of crisis, artists recognize how much a part the community they are, and many, like Michelle Waters, search for a way to use their art to bring about change.
Waters calls herself an eco-artist. "Given the dire straits of these times," she states, "I feel an urgency to produce images which are uncompromising in their indictment of our greed and avarice as the sources of environmental crisis." And indeed, she pulls no punches. Her exhibit, "Spectators to Destruction," is on display throughout the month at HSU's First Street Gallery. Her paintings depict surreal images of wildlife taking back the wild, as it were. The painting "Luddites" shows a variety of wild animals --- raccoons, bears, elk, mountain lions, rabbits --- at work dismantling and setting fire to bulldozers and other pieces of heavy equipment. In "What's for Dinner?" farm animals gather around the dinner table, and on the silver serving platter? Farmer John.
The humor is broad, the colors garish. There is nothing subtle about her work. In "Global Warning," Arctic wildlife attack a "Bummer" dealership, destroying the behemoth vehicles and tearing down the building. "Humor," she says, "is a way of dealing with grief." Like many people, she believes that our species faces a very real and imminent crisis, not in the next millennia, but perhaps in the next decade. With total collapse in our future (if you believe the scientists who claim that there is little or no time left to change our destructive ways) the flagrant disregard for the environment of those galumphing about in ridiculously oversized vehicles is maddening. While actual physical attacks are not a constructive course of action, painting the scene must be very satisfying.
What real effect does her work have on the cause of environmentalism? It's difficult to say, of course. But, as she states, change of the sort necessary to save ourselves is cumulative. It will take a complete change in the mindset of our culture, and such change generally happens slowly at first, and eventually snowballs. In order to get the snowball you have to have lots of little snowflakes at first, and it's impossible to tell if your own small efforts will eventually coalesce into the juggernaut of change.
However, Waters is not alone in her quest to save the environment through art. A growing number of artists are concerning themselves with environmental issues and finding ways to express their concern through their art. Some dedicate their work to the cause. Others may not see themselves as "eco-warriors," but consider the impact of the materials and methods that they use on the environment --- similar to the way many of us are thinking more about recycling --- using less toxic chemicals and driving cars designed for the conservation of resources rather then the gluttonous consumption of them.
Like other trends in art, the definition of environmental art depends on who you talk to, but I like this simple, open definition on the Green Museum website (greenmuseum.org): "In a general sense, it is art that helps improve our relationship with the natural world." While Waters chooses to paint, many other kinds of eco-art are being produced, including site-specific sculpture, nature photography, plein air painting and performance art. There are many examples, and no one of them covers the broad spectrum of the genre, but I'll give you a favorite of mine. In 1982, Agnes Denes planted a two-acre lot in downtown Manhattan with wheat. The photographic images of the wheat with the Statue of Liberty or Wall Street buildings in the background were powerful, symbolic images that brought our whole value system into sharp focus. Denes described her work over the several months it took to clear the field, plant it, tend the growing wheat and harvest it. She and her co-workers attracted a lot of attention, of course, and people cheered or scratched their heads in wonder and mild amusement throughout the process, but what most struck me were the tears of the onlookers as the wheat was harvested. Some people said that they didn't even know why, but the whole thing made them sad.
Art is about dialogue. An artist has an idea and expresses it on canvas (or whatever). People look at the painting and have their own reactions to it. And then they talk about it --- to each other, with the artist. Some of us write articles about what they see, some write books about it. Artists give lectures about their work and people respond to them with praise, criticism or questions. And it's all more grist for the mill.
In this case, Waters wants us to talk about environmental degradation, loss of habitat for other species and ecosystem collapse. While the images are challenging, the humor in them helps people to be more open-minded. Whether you agree with her politics or not, the striking images are likely to make you think and talk about the issues, and in that sense, they are successful. Her work can be seen at the First Street Gallery in Old Town through the month of October or at her website, michellewatersart.com.
Comments? Write a letter!
© Copyright 2005, North Coast Journal, Inc.