I'm wary of art with political subtexts, because it's usually pretty bad, and the shows that feature it are often long on explanatory text and documentary videos and short on artistic content. So when I walked into the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art to view the enormous eco-themed Weather Report: Art and Climate Change, I wasn't surprised to see pieces crammed into every nook and cranny, with panels of writing next to each one.
The entry space where the show is installed looks like one of those class projects that have become a standard feature in every wide hallway in a public school or college. In other words: a real turn-off if you're looking for a visual experience.
But first impressions are often wrong, and this one definitely was.
In the main front gallery, the ambience of the exhibition quickly changes into something much more than a pedagogical take on ecology. It's the rare example of art and politics coming together, in this case to further the worthy goal of raising public awareness about the effects of global warming. The exhibit has attracted national attention, even from the New York Times, because its topic is so au courant — not to mention urgent — and because it was curated by Lucy Lippard, an internationally known art critic, historian and theorist. This is the first show Lippard has put together in more than twenty years, and she was an appropriate choice for a curator since she has had a long relationship with the town, coming periodically over the last quarter-century to teach at the University of Colorado or to serve as a visiting scholar there.
Born in New York in 1937, Lippard earned her MA in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 1962 and began to write seriously about art soon after. She quickly emerged as an important early voice for a feminist deconstruction of the then-patriarchal art world. This ultimately led her to adopt more broadly based progressive philosophies.
Lippard organized Weather Report to illustrate her idea-driven and activist sensibilities. Luckily, a lot of accomplished artists are interested in the environment, so she was able to assemble quite a number of first-rate pieces that support her narrative and also have an aesthetic charge. In addition, she chose artists who were already interested in exploring environmental issues rather than asking artists to produce things specifically to support the theme of her show. (According to BMoCA curator Kirsten Gerdes, however, several participants did create pieces just for Weather Report.) "Art cannot change the world" Lippard writes in the show catalogue. But she adds that artists can "make the realities of climate change more vivid and immediate...in this visually oriented society."
One of the greatest strengths of Weather Report is Lippard's decision to cast a wide net, and though there are some pieces that literally refer to environmental changes, others address the topic more subtly.
The show starts off with the striking and fascinating drawings, schematics, photos and other documents related to "Tree Mountain," by Agnes Denes. One of the world's most prominent earth-artists, Denes supervised the construction of an actual — if small — mountain. It's a reclamation project disguised as a work of art, or maybe the other way around. Built on a gravel pit in Finland, the spherical mountain was planted with thousands of pine trees arranged in a spiral — shades of Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty."
Just as impressive, even if photo-based images can't quite stand up to a made-up mountain, are digital inkjet prints by Chris Jordan. These works look like non-objective abstracts until the viewer closely examines them and notices that they are covered with miniaturized photos of recognizable things. In "Jeep Liberty," Jordan puts an all-over pattern in white on top of a red field, resulting in a severe minimalist composition. The pattern is made up of 200,000 half-tones of Jeeps, representing the number that were produced in a single year. Like Jordan's other work here, it's an imaginative take on consumerism.
Ellen K. Levy also uses appropriated imagery to create her "2020 Vision" series, three pieces of which are on view, but her work resembles comics and posters more than paintings. Levy has taken utopian illustrations from the hippie-era "Whole Earth Catalogue" — an early attempt to bring ecological ideas to a wide audience — and integrated them into her own scenes of the future that depict ecological disasters.
The multi-panel graphics by Aviva Rahmani, in conjunction with Boulder environmental scientist Jim White, take satellite photos of major river basins — the Mississippi, the Ganges, the Nile — and outline, in colored markers, the natural and human habitats that will be lost with rising water levels. Though the works are covered in text, their emphatic colors make a striking statement.
There are also twenty photos from the "Dauphin Island, Alabama" project by the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The documentary photos show damaged but brightly colored beach houses on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. The houses stand out starkly against the sandbar on which they've been built, the stilts they sit atop unwittingly expressing their disconnection from the land. These images are anonymous, but the photographer clearly was informed by an aesthetic judgment in addition to the goals of social science. In each, the house or houses are perfectly framed within the shot.
They're examples of what could be called straight photography, and other artists in Weather Report work in the same way. Joan Myers captured the austere monumentality of the icebergs and ice caves in and around McMurdo Station in Antarctic. (Talk about majestic scenery.) Also taking a polar perspective, but in the American Arctic, are photos by Subhankar Banerjee of the caribou migration and the native hunters who follow it. Taking up nearly an entire side of the front gallery, these powerful and sometimes visceral Banerjees function as a show within a show.
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As viewers might expect, there's little optimism coming from most of the art in Weather Report, though there are a handful of exceptions, including the 'green' furniture designed by Bill Daher, Megan Haughey and Kellen Schauermann, students from the University of Colorado's College of Architecture and Planning, under the direction of professor Erik Sommerfeld. (Maybe these kids aren't as jaded as the other participants in the show.) Their pieces — a chair, a couple of tables and a desk — utilize earth-friendly and recycled materials, and all are exemplars of high-style reductive modernism.
Since my initial judgment of the show had flipped while I was there, I looked again at that troublesome first part before I left. Though it is badly installed, which I'd noticed, there's some interesting stuff here, which I hadn't. This is where outside projects relevant to the show's topic are represented by documentation. To the right are past efforts like Patrick Marold's illuminated windmills, which were erected in Vail last spring but later dismantled. On the left are projects in the Boulder area that are direct extensions of the show, such as "Connect the Dots," the blue-colored circles by Mary Miss that have been placed on trees and buildings around downtown indicating the high-water mark of the Boulder Creek flood plain — think New Orleans after Katrina. The windmills by Marold and the dots by Miss reveal Lippard's lifelong interest in bringing the community into the art world and vice versa.
Yes, this unwieldy exhibit is a signature People's Republic of Boulder event, but it is also smart and interesting and includes many works that are not only worth thinking about, but worth seeing as well.