Anyone who has recently taken interstate 91 North has been informed by a sunset-orange billboard that the ever-looming End of the World is at hand. It all ends today, in fact, May 21. Presumably, at this time, right now, souls may be in the process of a very permanent relocation. If however, you have not (yet) been evicted from the Earth, we suggest you get down to Artspace. Why? Why bother to look at art now, after such a close shave with The End? Well, one reason is that the current exhibition Marie Celeste dwells on what we very nearly lost: the world as we know it.
Marie Celeste presents this world to us in the broad dimension of “nature.” However, curator Liza Statton’s image of nature is not the one made familiar by PBS and wildlife painting. Nowhere in her brochure essay will she use the term beauty and wonder to describe the natural world. Rather than a “reified image of Nature” confined to the green world of landscapes and wild creatures, Statton’s nature is as universal as a rapture – but far more forgiving. With great attention to the particular and the plastic (literally and otherwise) Marie Celeste deploys ecology to take on subjects of the city and society just as well as the wild and bucolic. As such, it affirms an understanding of humanity as nature’s constituent part.
The title Marie Celeste has reference to a migration of its own: honeybees’ inexplicable abandonment of their nests. The now widespread phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder mirrors the mysterious 19th century ghost ship, the Mary Celeste, whose crew and passengers were simply missing, seemingly neither dead or alive. This bee-trouble bears a worrisome novelty. It is the kind of unforeseeable collapse lying at the terminal point of any form of life. This kind of event has broad significance in a time of apocalyptic nerves, which are triggered more by social, ecological and financial crises than by any prophetic revelation.
Given the situation, you may ask again, why look at art? Statton wagers that the answer is in the looking itself, that the exercise of making and viewing art may “teach us how to see” better than we could hope to teach ourselves.
Marie Celeste best succeeds when it draws the viewer into such a new kind of looking. Stephen Bush’s paintings place unassuming beekeepers in a bizarre, iridescent topography, where oil paint and lacquer appear to leech out of the canvas like tie-dyed lava. In Rhodamine Mabel Bungarra a goat reclines next to the apiarist’s missing hive, looking out through the frame. The beekeeper’s face is covered; the lone background figure and his dogs are turned toward the hills. The goat’s knowing gaze is the only one offered to the viewer. It seems to belong to the terrain itself.
Similarly strange are Erika Blumenfield’s photographs, which push Antarctica’s icescapes to formal abstraction. The icecaps of one of the world’s weirdest places have recently have come to indicate the globe’s larger fate; I read Blumenfield’s tight focus on their crevices and crests as a divining concentration, teasing us with a deep look into a future that threatens to melt away.
More constructive is Nick Lamia’s contribution, filling the space with a structural expansion that quickly exceeds his canvases and darts onto the wall and floor. There on the floor, the cube of Tetris-like blocks that Lamia installed has opened out into a colorful, wooden city as viewers are invited to deconstruct and reconstruct his materials. The morphing block-city could just as easily be found in a preschool playroom, as the piece’s title suggests, Cities for our Kids’ Kids’ Kids’ Kids’ Kids’ Kids’ Kids. Lamia’s piece casts a prodigious shadow into time, intending a permanence to the seventh generation.
At present, it may be tempting to talk about “the problem” of nature, anticipating extreme change around the corner. Marie Celeste celebrates the fluxing image of nature now. It does not pretend to offer right answers to the problem, rather in its cultivation of looking, it invites us to ask what the right questions are. Download the full exhibition brochure here.
– Caleb Hendrickson