1.17 / Review

Groundswell

By Patricia Maloney June 16, 2010

The exhibition “Groundswell,” at Kala Gallery, revisits territory explored earlier this year in Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s “Green House Britain and the Force Majeure,” although it doesn’t contain the depth of research or intensity the Harrisons accomplished in delimiting the precarious balance between human and ecological forces. “Groundswell,” juried and guest curated by Betti-Sue Hertz, director of visual arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is more impressionistic than didactic. The works also seem to be at odds with their contextualization. While the term groundswell suggests a tide-turning change of public opinion, and the vague curatorial statement notes that being “an environmentalist already marks an individual as being able to go beyond the personal,” the included works suggest perspectives that are highly individualistic or even idiosyncratic. The participating artists seem to take up the directives Theodore Roethke expressed in his 1953 poem “The Waking,” to walk softly upon the ground and “learn by going where [they] have to go.” They construct routes and road signs that mark imagined, invisible, and literal traversals, as well as moments of consciousness and indifference to what gets laid upon the earth.

For example, an elaborate system of tubes and wires meanders through Elliot Anderson’s hydroponic garden, Non-Site: Alamitos Creek (2010). This self-contained, rejuvenating ecosystem filters water polluted with heavy metals and mercury left from nineteenth-century mining operations through the plants and returns it clean to a basin. The plants clean the murk in a process known as phytoremediation, by which they accumulate and biodegrade the contaminants. In other words, the water embarks on a transformative journey, in which the plants erase the impact of extraction and destruction. It is significant that the path is visible but the process obscured, as it poignantly suggests a refusal to see the toil required to make things right again.

A similar, but more literal, traced and erased path is Nathan Hodges’ Boulder (2010), in which the artist rolled a boulder from Tilden Park to the gallery, inked the stone, and rolled it across sheets of paper spanning the width of the floor. The resulting monoprints are installed in a grid, disrupting the continuity of the journey, while the boulder sits on the floor, with broken fragments displayed alongside. The prints aren’t as compelling as the idea that the boulder will be returned to

"Groundswell," installation view, Kala Gallery.  Front: Elliot Anderson, Non-Site: Alamitos Creek, 2010; mixed-media installation. Back: sonicSense: Barney Haynes and Jennifer Parker, solarSonic, 2010; new media installation. On wall: Emily Payne, Basin, 2008; gouache on paper. Courtesy of the Artists and Kala Gallery, Berkeley.

Suzanne Husky. "Modern Wild Lives," 2009; C-print. Courtesy of the Artist and Kala Gallery, Berkeley.

its original spot, visibly altered and diminished by this not-quite-Sisyphean exercise in futility. Meanwhile, Hodges offers a more absorbing narrative with Hike (2009), an artist book detailing his and his fiancée’s trek from Berkeley to Portland, Oregon.

Elsewhere in the show, pollution creates visible trails—the detritus that gets dragged behind us in our wake and by which we might retrace our steps. Mitra Fabian’s mixed-media Ghost Net I (2009-2010) is a tangled mass of cords, nets, ropes, foam, fishing line, and bungee cords that simultaneously resemble an ad hoc macramé sculpture and the debris washed above the tide line at the beach. By itself, it is haunting and lovely, but when installed alongside Laysan Albatross (2009-10), a lifelike bird made from plastic and glue sitting among a scattered heap of plastic caps and disposable lighters, and Gyre (2009), a map of swirling eddies evocative of the Great Garbage Patch, it becomes a ham-fisted and trite reminder that we are using the ocean as a dumping ground.

In contrast, "Modern Wild Lives" (2009) suggests the limits of our ability to comprehend or embrace a lesser impact, scaling down the perspective Fabian addresses. Suzanne Husky’s small photographs document individuals who build their homes in rural outposts using recycled and found materials. Juxtaposed against these actual sites are the imagined territories layered and demarcated by Joan Margolies-Kiernan. Spontaneously hand-drawn maps depicting overlapping roads, logos, and icons might be suggestive of alternative perspectives, but a lack of directionals prohibits entering her system. Taken together, these sites—real and imagined—speak to a world beyond the edge of what is feasible or logical for most people to comprehend or follow.

Jennifer Parker and Barney Haynes attempt to push back the boundaries of what can be visibly comprehended in their mixed-media installation solarSonic (2010), which purportedly captures solar wind data. (Wall text was spotty throughout the show and seemingly generated by the artists when available; outside research is required to understand, for example, what phytoremediation is.) The artists constructed a short corridor whose walls are made from sheets of speaker film. Walking through the corridor triggers a sequence of electronic sounds that suggest waves and wind. The auditory experience was as pleasurable as the accompanying explanation was confounding. Perhaps it is poetic to consider the sounds that a stream of electrons and protons ejected from the sun makes, but it was more encouraging to think about how our movement through space—like our steps upon the ground—might be seen or heard, but leave little trace.

 

“Groundswell” is on view at Kala Gallery in Berkeley through July 3, 2010.

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