Where Are You In This?
Contemporary Artists Respond to Climate Change
When Bolton Landing resident Rebecca Smith was a young artist and a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she received a studio visit from the sculptor Jackie Brookner. After carefully examining the work, Brookner said, in so many words, “formally, this is first rate. But where are you in this?”
According to Smith, it’s a question she continues to ask herself through every new articulation of her art.
Smith’s work always has emotional cargo. When below the surface, it gives the work heft. When visible, through her use of color, it radiates something – allure? The risk of enchantment? The same could not, however, convincingly be said of many of Smith’s contemporaries, especially those whose work is of the kind frequently displayed in upstate galleries. At times the work is so formal as to be an artistic dead zone, devoid of life. Without an artist’s statement accompanying a piece, one would not guess it had any content at all.
So it is exciting to report that the show that will open at the Courthouse Gallery on July 11, “Climate Contemporary,” will, to say the least, be content-rich.
All five artists ask themselves where are they in this, the work art. Which, in this case, is to also ask themselves, where are they in this, the existential issue of the century, not only as artists but as members of their species, as human beings. And they compel us, the viewers, to ask the same question of ourselves.
Smith is represented by several pieces in the show, which also includes work by Mike Glier, Jackie Brookner, Diane Burko and Larry Brown. Smith conceived of and curated the show.
The idea for “Climate Contemporary,” she said, emerged from “Emissions: Images from the Mixing Layer,” a 2013 exhibition and a series of discussions with artists, scientists and climate change activists held at New York City’s Cooper Union, in which she participated and helped organize.
As an activist herself, Smith was closely involved with a study to measure methane emissions in Manhattan. The study found that Manhattan lies under a cloud of methane, originating primarily from aging natural gas pipelines.
“Methane leakage makes natural gas a greater contributor to climate change than other fossil fuels,” said Smith.
The work that Smith created for that show and other exhibitions over the next few years was in many ways her attempt to address her complex reactions to climate change and to communicate what she had learned.
“It’s difficult to think about greenhouse gases, those invisible, odorless, lighter-than-air chemical compounds, if you can’t see them, at least it is for me, an artist with only a basic knowledge of chemistry. So I’ve tried to render these invisible processes through symbols, drawings, paintings, and objects. I felt that if you can see it, in some form, then perhaps you can understand it. And if you understand the science, then you get it, that is, the significance of the issue,” said Smith.
Lake George being a center of her life, she wanted to create a similar experience here.
For the show at the Lake George Arts Project’s gallery, “I wanted to find artists who are working through these same kinds of questions,” she said.
Among those Smith consulted was David Breslin, until recently a curator at the Clark Institute in Williamstown who organized last year’s exhibition there of steel sculptures by David Smith, her father.
Breslin recommended Mike Glier, a teacher at Williams College who, Smith says, “has a conceptual approach that’s wrapped in plein aire landscapes.”
He’ll be represented in the show by work from “Along the Line,” the record of a trip from the Arctic to the equator.
“He suggests that if we think about the globe as one place, then we’ll come to realize that individual actions can have seismic consequences,” said Smith.
Courthouse Gallery director Laura Von Rosk suggested Larry Brown, a New York painter who teaches at Cooper Union.
“In many ways, he’s a very traditional painter. But rather than treating traditional subjects, he’s tried to visualize the assault on the earth. Some of the paintings seem ominous. They’re very engaging,” said Smith.
Smith was already familiar with the work of Diane Burko, who documents climate change through photographs and paintings.
Jackie Brookner is, or was, an old friend. She died on May 15.
“Originally, I was interested in presenting pieces of her sculpture, in which she uses aesthetics to embody solutions to problems like stormwater management. But in one of my last conversations with her, she said she was much more engaged in her collaborative work, such as projects in Finland and, more recently, in Fargo, North Dakota,” said Smith.
That project, known as the Fargo Project, will transform a stormwater detention basin into a neighborhood commons – much as Lake George’s Westbrook Conservation Initiative will create a park out of an artificial wetland and a series of stormwater controls.
The Fargo Project will be the centerpiece of Brookner’s contributions to the show.
Smith will also speak about Brookner and her work on Thursday, July 23 at The Fund for Lake George’s Center for Lake George. The talk will start at 6 pm.
Diane Burko will speak about her work and its relationship to climate change at the Lake George Land Conservancy’s Macionis Conservation Center in Bolton Landing on July 16. That talk also starts at 6 pm.
“I hope people are inspired by this show and these artists,” said Smith. “Getting our heads out of the sand and shaking off denial about climate change is a big project. Considering what can be done, what should be done, what we as individuals can do – that’s another big project. But these artists, different as they may be, are all pushing us toward these goals.”