The first Earth Day celebration took place just over 50 years ago, on April 22, 1970. Now, in the challenging decade of the 2020s, adventurous artists working in diverse media are coming together at this Gallery Sitka show to interpret, question, and honor old Mother Earth in all her fascinating complexity and beauty.
“The artists were all asked to consider how they, as human beings, were connected to Nature,” explains Beth Barry, the show’s curator. “All the canvases must be no larger than 20 by 20, and all artists were asked for a minimum of three paintings.” More than 50 artists answered the call.
“I’ve been curating for about ten years,” says Ms. Barry, “and I’ve been working with Tamar for seven or eight years.” Gallery Sitka owner Tamar Russell Brown has produced Earth Day shows before, and she enjoys the tremendous enthusiasm and insight that Ms. Barry brings to the work of curation.
“I like to put all the paintings on the floor and move them around, trying to put things together, mostly by color, but also by size and shape,” the artist-curator says. “It’s a fast process,” says Beth. She likes to have “another eye” evaluating the artwork, in order to expand the possibilities of what art lovers may find interesting or beautiful.
“The hanging of a show is very important,” she explains. “Ideally, there should be a tension among the different artworks. Two pictures that are very similar in terms of color or style should not be placed right beside each other.” It is much more interesting, Beth implies, when two pictures of different, but complementary, colors (for example) hang close to each other. It’s not just a matter of how each individual painting strikes the viewer, but of how all the pictures work together for an overall effect — almost as if all the pictures together are operating as a single, massive work of art unto itself.
Abstract Expressionism has long been Beth’s primary interest, both as a painter and as a curator. In recent years she has been painting for and curating a show entitled “Mostly Abstract” at Ashawagh Hall in East Hampton, at the far end of Long Island, where painters Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack had homes.
The Gallery Sitka show will be a boon for the artists selected for it. The works in the exposition will be carried on the popular website, Artsy.net, for a year.
Jeanne Borofsky is not just a “picture person,” as most visual artists are. She’s also a “word person.” While a lovely display of spring greenery dominates the bulk of her submission to the show, the artist subtly works in the title of the work itself, with the word “Forget” placed in smallish type near the top of the composition in encaustic. While this seems normal enough, she adds eccentric touches such as tiny newspaper clippings with the text upside down and a piece of a map with prominent place names printed on it. As if these little particles of the world of letters are not surprising enough, she includes a truly inscrutable feature of her artwork — a script of her own invention, seemingly a not-yet-translated fragment of a document from a long-lost civilization. The pictorial element makes a comeback in the form of a blue lizard and the line-drawing of a frog. The work conjures up a little battle between the green, wet, buzzing forest pressing in on the edges of the noisy streets and right angles of the city.
The “Blue Lilacs” of Emily Stedman are somewhat ghostly in this lovely watercolor, as the green, the greyish blue, and the little flashes of magenta seem to be evaporating into the air in a steamy part of the woods on the first really warm day of the spring. A long, grey, punishingly cold winter is now making way for the striking purple and white petals of April. The blooms will seem tired and out-of-place come the unforgivingly hot days of July and August, but around Earth Day the lilacs reassure us that our home planet if properly cared for, will continue to bring forth life and beauty year after year after year.
Angelique Luro’s “Frond” is not a painting. It’s a photograph of four paintings. These paintings, abstract and expressionistic, are situated within a “frame” of actual — that is, photographed — green and yellowish leaves of the plants that surround the paintings. We get the interpretive work of the painter combined with the “recording” work of the photographer. It’s a bit like dueling interpretations of reality, featuring perplexing questions such as “What is art?” and “What is nature?” The all-encompassing photograph, which of course takes in both the abstraction of the photographed paintings and the wild, reaching “hands” of leaves, forces us to ask: “What is technology?” There is a freedom, a responsiveness, in these four mixed-media paintings that are just as wild as the surrounding greenery, guided not by Mother Nature’s patient hands but by the artist’s vibrant sense of color and motion.
Mel Smothers indeed painted over a can of Campbell’s Soup, so thoroughly that we can’t tell what flavor the can contains. But even without giving it away in the title — a very matter-of-fact “I Painted Over Andy Warhol” — the viewer recognizes the familiar image of the soup can, with its garish medium-red seeming to “bleed” into the white paint that can’t quite seem to cool down and completely cover the can. The white jumps out unobstructed, brilliant, in the lower right-hand corner of the picture, as if the light of the sun finds its way to the surface that backs up the soup can. But the sun totally immerses and electrifies the opening flower in the foreground. The flower is a living thing that is very much the same as any other flower of its type but is still an individual, like the sensitive artist who painted it. The natural world thrusts itself into the foreground as the industrial pop art that Warhol painted almost 60 years ago is pushed into the background.
“Leaf Relief #1” offers an astonishing diversity of colors, as well as a somewhat surrealistic manner of assigning colors to these brilliantly glazed ceramics. While some of the leaves are conventional enough — dark green from the deep, dark forest — others are impossible royal blues and indigos. Two maple leaves are as dark as pomegranates, darker and more somber than any brilliant red leaves of October. We have a couple of very small leaves whose color is as gold as brand-new (yes) gold leaf. We have four plump blueberries that have snuck in among the leaves. And, as we all know, blueberries are purple and only blue if you squint. Yet artist Susan Tunick’s blueberries are a rich, early morning sky-blue. The variety of colors here is astonishing.
Nothing communicates a connection with Nature, of course, more directly than the color green. Susan Wadsworth’s “Silver Pavilion Garden, Kyoto” is a study in green, or rather a competition of sorts among three shades of it cut up by a fourth shade that is such a very dark green that it comes across as black. This black divides the fields of green pigment like the borders of countries on a map. But they divide up the shades just as the edges of leaves (or bunches of leaves) do when the light of the sun runs out of material to illuminate. The shadow that lurks behind these leaves carves the border around that living vegetation, allowing the surfaces of the leaves themselves to reflect the sun’s light back to the viewer. There is a very dark green that conjures up withered leaves of late fall, so dry and desiccated that even autumn yellow, red, and brown have been knocked out. There is a very light green, so light that it seems an impossible shade in the natural world. But the dominating shade is the bright spring green that we usually only see in April and perhaps in May, reminding us that the Earth is continually renewing itself and pushing the recent chill of winter out of our minds. But toward the top and center of the canvas is a stark field of white. This might be meant to remind us of the snow — a sort of memento mori in pure color (or absence of color, if you prefer).
“Earth’s Tilted Axis” is a title that challenges us to figure out how its precise scientific terminology relates to the wildness in Susan Libsin’s defiantly abstract painting. What is representational here is easily found but does not offer much in the way of an explanation of why Ms. Libsin names it after a feature such as the Earth’s axis, a part of the mechanism that only seems real to us when we think of the Earth as a sort of machine. Many of us have more romantic and frankly emotional ties to old Mother Earth, while others are more liable to view this spinning sphere in space as an inert device. Yet the fields of color in the painting seem to have nothing in common with a lifeless spinning top. We see a dramatic and perhaps stormy dark-blue sky bisected by a white cloud of a rather suggestive shape. To the left is a green that seems in the process of reconciling its medium green with a stubborn yellow taking on a bit of the blue above. To the right is a ferocious combination of weird reds — slashes of magenta hovering over a fiery red reminiscent of lava pouring out of the summit of a volcano, both floating above a dark blood-red. These clashing reds have a strange, hellish quality that doesn’t give us anything like calm or comfort. The title reminds us of Newton and Kepler and all the other serene mathematicians trying to impose order on a natural world that is, for all its hypnotizing beauty, often a violent arena of conflict. The Earth is our home in the universe, but Libsin’s interpretation of it hardly lets us sigh and smile and coo, “There’s no place like home.”
Karin Bruckner’s “Dance of Seven Veils” comes at the viewer from a mostly abstract perspective. It gives us the impression that the veils themselves could be made of nylon or some other synthetic fabric. The veils are made up of black strands that look ragged and torn. Yet the representational features of the picture pretty much end there. The veils take on bits of yellow that are striking beside the black and grey. Beside and behind the black is also a sky blue that pushes its way through at the lower left, along with a pale green at right. That green might stand in for the ocean, as in the “sea of green” that Paul McCartney wrote about in the old Beatles song. At the center and left is a muddy patch of earth (that is, soil), appropriate indeed for a painting about the artist’s relationship with the planet Earth. The gouache sometimes called a water-medium similar to traditional watercolor, is also fitting for this overall theme of the exposition, since it evokes the watery world of the rivers, the rains, and the seven seas.
The first impression that Karin Battin’s “Dawn” makes is one of disruption, of tumult. A powerful wind seems to be whipping across the objects in the foreground. These objects include a patch of blue across the lower quarter of the canvas. A body of water? Perhaps. A dark red, roundish object hangs or floats above the water and seems to be pushed to the left by the wind. A human heart? Perhaps. What looks like a large artery reaches up and out of the picture at the top, and some black cords — wiring? — gather behind the red. At upper right are three leaves, green with yellow trim — petals, perhaps, instead of leaves — borne along by the wind. The dominant color from top to bottom is a very pale green. This is the wind itself, perhaps symbolizing a violent change in the natural world. There is a network of something like chicken wire behind the green and the blue, indeed backing up most of the entire canvas. Another network appears as well, a set of vertical columns that seem to cut through the blue water. These background nets may be the world of modern technology reaching into the world of Nature, perhaps intending to trap or imprison it. Yet if one abandons the search for things representational, the picture surprisingly offers an atmosphere of comfort, a feeling of peace evoked by these lovely fields of color and the balanced interplay between them.
We learn from an Indian environmental studies website called Mongabay that “Seagrasses are marine flowering plants, found on all continents except Antarctica.” That sounds benign enough. But we also learn that “seagrass meadows are experiencing rates of loss that may be as high as 7% of their total global area per year.” And that was ten years ago. Most of us are not qualified to hazard a scientific opinion about this statistic. We don’t know whether to be, or how much to be, either complacent or alarmed about it. But Barbara Groh’s picture “Red Sea Grasses” seems to reflect the attitude that we should at least try and learn a little more about a plant that is millions of years old but perhaps only recently beginning to lose its place in the world. Ms. Groh’s materials also take it on the chin in this work, a somewhat violent meeting of Earth-oil and hardboard. The dramatic red of the seagrass in question is seemingly created by slashing into the hardboard with some sharp-edged tool. But if that isn’t enough to startle us, there’s the mostly yellow surface that might remind us of the sun, the radiation from which burns a little hotter here on Earth with each passing year. An art lover doesn’t need to take a position on what should be done to address the question of increasing average temperatures on our planet, or even the question of who or what is at fault for it. But this artwork makes a very strong statement that compels the viewer to learn more about this ecological state of affairs. In fact, that burning yellow and frightening red are simply too disturbing. They won’t allow us to take a smug, self-satisfied attitude. An automatic endorsement of this side or that side of the issue just won’t do. The artist is calling on us to do our own thinking on the subject, even as she is stirring up not just thoughts but also powerful feelings.
Artists included in this show are: A. Bascove, Amy Regalia, Angelique Luro, Barbara Groh, Barbara Swanson Sherman, Beth Barry, Bonnie Steinsnyder, Bridie Wolejko, Carolyn Todd, Casey Anderson, Cecilia André, Colette Shumate Smith, Colleen Deery, Daniel Senie, Desmond Johnson, Diane Churchill, Donna Rega, Eileen Ferara, Emily Stedman, Jacqueline Sferra Rada, Janet Morgan, Janet Soderberg, Jeanne Borofsky, Jennifer Hilton, JJE McManus, Karin Batten, Karin Bruckner, Kate Shaffer, Kathy Levine, Ksanyx, Lawrence Libby, Lillian Burkart, Linda Cuccurullo, Marilyn Church, Martha Robinson, Matt McKee, Mel Smothers, Melissa Richard, Nilou Moochhala, Pamela Baker, Patricia Gericke, Patricia Jenks, Priscilla Stadler, Regina Silvers, Rennie Keller, Richard Crowe, Jr., Sandi Daniel, Sandra Taggart, Shira Toren, Susan Grucci, Susan Lisbin, Susan M. Wadsworths, Susan Tunick, Teressa Valla, Wendy Moss, and Wendy Saemisch-Hannigan.
This exposition will be available for viewing by appointment and online, beginning Friday, April 23. Please call Gallery Sitka at 978.425.6290 to set up a time to see the artwork. Gallery Sitka is located at The Phoenix Park, 2 Shaker Road, Suite D101, in Shirley, Mass. Visit gallerysitka.com for more information about the show and its featured artists. This show was partially funded by the Shirley Cultural Council.