Giving Attention, a group show curated by Mike Wsol, at Georgia State University’s Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Galleries through February 20, appears to be about the newly named Anthropocene Epoch, in which we have altered not only our relationship with nature but also the nature of nature itself.
Amandine Drouet suggests this on several levels, through the visual metaphor of fragile natural forms replicated or evoked in cut and reshaped plastic bottles. Her ethically responsible act of recycling seems less important than the fact that poetic qualities of nature are reproduced, but also replaced by artifice, in Christmas Sea Anemone and Nondisposable Flower #s 1-3. Both the sculpture of a delicate sea creature and the fantasy flowers are displayed beneath inverted transparent bowls.
Leisa Rich’s wall sculpture Tolbachik Cup’s Coral also replicates sea creatures in plastic, in this case with forms generated by 3-D printing. The exquisite qualities of these literalistic renditions (seemingly stripped-down renditions of how coral reefs actually look) are echoed in three mini-vitrine light boxes containing half-dome-like and differently lacy shapes. Their titles — An Osteolytic Form of Life, No Men on Mars, and Enter Space, Exit Human — evoke the biology of extraterrestrial beings or even a whole sci-fi novel that is not entirely about outer space.
Starkly in contrast with these works’ etheric loveliness, Rich’s savagely satiric companion pieces range from the disturbingly amorphous Picasso’s Garden Eels to the equally unpleasant creatures gathered around a cartoon campfire in front of a teepee that contains either a box of chocolates or the cells of a beehive gone horribly wrong. This last is titled The Apes of Wrath Attend the Singularity Summit, punning on John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, about economic displacement, and William Blake’s “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” with a sidelong slap at Raymond Kurzweil’s blithe belief that technology is about to reach the tipping point that renders nature superfluous.
Something similar about the thoughtless or cynical exploitation of nature is implied by Hanging by a Thread, a sculpture in which a colored-stone-encrusted creature — a “sub-animal,” according to the artist — is hauling in a thick-roped fishing net filled with soft-sculpture ovals that are shaped like smooth river rocks but wear a grass pattern on their surface.
Although Rich’s grasp of contemporary scientific knowledge is considerable, I find her efforts to translate this knowledge into allegory impenetrable without some kind of verbal explanation. I like the cartoon quality of these mostly soft-sculpture works, but I prefer the fragile, delicate balance of the 3-D-printed sculptures, and I mostly have no idea what Rich is talking about, or rather showing us about.
Kellie Bornhoft complements Rich’s meditations with a pair of lyrical sculptural elegies for nature composed of substitutes for it. Saving the Lost consists of a bouquet of silk flowers set in a concrete base, suspended by a chain from a servo motor that apparently has no function other than to suggest the mechanical, since it is difficult to imagine what it would do if it were activated. Perched consists of an artificial bird atop an artificial lemon and bunch of artificial grapes, set atop a small piece of scrap lumber.
Bornhoft’s video It’s As Real As You Make It is the linchpin in this exhibition’s meditation on natural reality versus artifice and illusion — or delusion. The soundtrack instructs a young woman to cover herself with various substances while imagining them to be from natural sources — soap foam is sea foam, tap water is river water. As she does this, images of the sea, say, are projected on her body and the wall behind her.
At the end, after she is instructed to use a lightbulb to mimic the warmth of sunlight, the images suddenly vanish, leaving the sticky woman to face a void stripped of projections — or rather, it is we as viewers who face the bright blankness of the wall behind her; she faces only the projector that has showed us photographs symbolizing the mental images she was told to create. She — and we — are alone with silence and the messy aftermath of her fantasy.
My response may not be entirely what curator Mike Wsol intended. He provided no information onsite to clue us in, and the university website states only that the artists chosen “give attention to overlaps, distortions, and mutations of nature and the artificial.”
Artists’ and curators’ unconscious associations always contain more information than they can articulate verbally; this is the case for all of us. But since we don’t share the contents of their unconscious minds, we as viewers could use a little extra help to get us started in the right direction.
On the home page: Hanging By A Thread, 2015, grass printed cloth, recycled upholstery cording, recycled reflexology mat, wire, batting; hand crocheted, sewn, stuffed, constructed.