What is Environmental Art?

By Susan Wolf

I am sick and tired of hearing about the environment. This is the thought I had recently when approaching the top floor EnvironMental show at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center. It’s not that I don’t believe in global warming or the importance of energy conservation. But mass marketing has made going “green” into the same easy empty gesture that wearing pink has become. There are really important challenges facing our planet, and having a party in the name of the environment so that people can feel they have done their part without making any sacrifices really irks me. Now, on to the art.

After entering the gallery, I quickly realized that there might be something else going on here besides a spring “green” show. The curatorial team had decided to use a play on the word “environmental” by capitalizing the “M” and displaying the work of artists who consider how their work interacts with the environment, not just issues of how to “save the planet.” This isn’t such a original idea (you’ve probably heard of Christo and Jeanne-Claude), but it also isn’t an exhausted one, as the depth and variety of the work in this show proves. [quote float=”right”]After entering the gallery, I quickly realized that there might be something else going on here besides a spring “green” show.[/quote]

The center of the room displays a closed installation piece by the installation duo of albert+kahn. Unchartered features geometrical forms, primary colors, barbed wire and photographs of tree branches. There is a constant push-pull – not only of space, but of confinement versus freedom – that changes as the viewer moves around the work. The branches in the photos are in the midst of breaking through their confinement and the viewer is invited into the work, but then not allowed to enter.

The artist with the most pieces in the show is Peggy Zehring, a painter who uses thick, sculptural, pigmented spirals that protrude into the viewer’s space. With names like Harnessing Bacchus, the paintings reminded me of classic historical artifacts and the rough plaster-like treatment of the canvases have a lost/forgotten ruin quality about them. However, I just couldn’t love them. I found the almost neon colors distracting and although the paintings have the same energetic duality found throughout the show, I don’t think they work on their own.

Some artists presented work with natural themes or materials, notably local potter Shane Jarrett, whose installation, Transitions, made bricks and mortar into a beautiful tree-like sculpture. Matt Barton’s Cumulonimbus was literally a cloud of wood: a roughly carved block of dense timber that he interestingly transformed into a light, not-so-mobile mobile. Finally, Maria Cocchiarelli, one of the co-directors of the Museum of Friends in Walsenburg, displayed some striking deep-sea photos on light boxes.

I was pleased to see Pilworth’s Rib, by Brendt Berger, also of the Museum of Friends. This large graffiti-style mural of primary-color paint strokes references the abstract impressionist Robert Motherwell, but with a fresh, modern feel. Its industrial quality was a nice contrast to the other, more “natural” pieces around it.

Another piece that looked at the urban environment was a video installation by Valerie Brodar entitled, Pile Up. As I watched the montage of car crashes and explosions, I couldn’t help but feel that I was back in art school. The piece seemed to follow the tried and true formula of A (borrowed imagery) plus B (appropriation with repetition) equals C (art). I was not shocked to learn we both went to the same graduate school.

[quote float=”left”]Overall, this is an intelligent, well-put-together show that avoids many overused environmental clichés.[/quote] Overall, this is an intelligent, well-put-together show that avoids many overused environmental clichés.  Complementing this show are a children’s art exhibit that is excellent, and a one-person show of local metal smith, Aaron Williams, that is, in itself, worth a trip to the Arts Center.

The Arts Center will miss curator Karen Larkin, who in her tenure had undoubtedly raised the bar for art exhibition in Pueblo. I wish her all the best at UCCS and hope that the Arts Center once again has the foresight to hire a replacement that is as qualified and competent as she is.

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