Exhibition Dec 21, 2017 – Mar 4, 2018
Spartanburg Art Museum
Ghost Nets by Cecilia Ho
Museum Audio Art Talk :
Press Release 12/15/17
Remixing nature’s classic role in art
A new exhibition at Spartanburg Art Museum (SAM) offers an up-to-date look at humanity’s relationship with nature.
The artworks in Spartanburg Art Museum’s latest exhibition, Unnatural History, upend one’s expectations at every turn. Rather than on canvas or panel, a series of landscapes is painted on the inside of plastic bottle caps. A label next to a colorful sculpture lists one of its materials as “used motor oil.” A wall hanging resembling a quilt turns out to be made of dozens of painstakingly joined pieces of salvaged wood. All of the works on view in Unnatural History offer visitors an opportunity to experience an everyday material or object transformed into something fantastically strange. Collectively, they provoke visitors to contemplate the profound ways human beings have transformed, destroyed, or augmented our natural environment.
Nature is one of art’s most ancient subjects. Shared inspiration in it unites artists from across the globe, enabling art historians to draw parallels between the art of vastly different cultures and time periods. In the present, however, the extent of the world that can accurately be called natural is greatly reduced. In 2002, National Geographic calculated that about 83% of the earth’s total land area, and 98% of the areas where it is possible to grow the worlds three main crops – rice, maize, and wheat – had been substantially altered by human activity. In place of natural spaces, hybrid spaces have sprung up which are partly natural, but mostly artificial – factory farms, open-pit mines, and large-scale industrial projects. The artworks in Unnatural History reflect this process of transformation and combination.
The first artwork one encounters in Unnatural History is a small room filled with life-size three-dimensional trees, animals and plants made from black paper. At first glance, this paper forest seems tranquil. Faint birdsong can be heard in the background of the audioguide Canadian artist Stéphanie Morissette recorded for visitors to the exhibition. But a closer look reveals something has gone terribly wrong – a large pipeline cuts through a clearing at the center of this forest, and a deer is sinking into a puddle of dark liquid that has gathered below it. The birdsong in the audioguide fades and is replaced by the sound of chainsaw. Morissette explains:
“The ‘Pipeline’ presented in Unnatural History clearly demonstrates how nature is transformed by humans. A leaking pipe comes out of the ground and a deer is engulfed. The trees surrounding it are dead. A running hare has a wooden leg like it has been caught in a trap, or a human has cut it off to put on his key chain for good luck. The forest is not so much troubling as troubled about its own fate.”
But the artworks on view in Unnatural History are not universally gloomy. Though they are all similar in theme, they vary widely in tone and scope. The small works of artist Jon Duff are almost humorous. In each, a novelty coffee mug sits in a slimy diorama of bizarre plants and broken tree branches, emblazoned with an witty slogan. One reads “yes, a monkey could do this job but I was here first.” The slogan strikes one as both an observation on the complicated state of labor in a society that uses drones and digital assistants for routine tasks, and a wry riff on a criticism often leveled at modern art – ‘my kid could do that.’ At the same time, the dead trees and slime surrounding the mugs call to mind the natural resources consumed to create them, and lead one to wonder whether their use was worthwhile.
In contrast, artist Kathleen Thum strikes a monumental tone with Carrying Capacity, a wall-mounted sculpture over 17 feet wide which depicts a tangled network of pipes that stretches towards the horizon. Thum says:
“…this work was inspired when I drove down to Texas, along the gulf of Mexico to Texas City. In that city there are massive oil refineries – miles and miles of them. This piece was a reaction to how vast and intricate that system is. I felt both horror and awe at the system we’ve created and depend upon. I wanted the colors in the piece to evoke an oil refinery at night, a sunset, and perhaps something toxic or burnt.
We’re now living in the Anthropocene, an era in which we have started to change the geology of the earth. The oil industry is a huge component of those changes, in terms of drilling and laying in pipelines and extracting oil and processing oil and toxic waste…it leads you to think about the – instead of natural history – the unnatural history we’re imposing.”
Other works in the exhibition offer possibilities for recovery and reconciliation with the altered natural world. In Laura-Petrovich Cheney’s works, wood salvaged from homes damaged in hurricanes is transformed into elegant, colorful mosaics that resemble quilts. Kara Artman reconstructs weathered glass bottles from Carolina beaches, also known as ‘sea glass,’ with copper wire reclaimed from electrical conduits. Cecilia Ho contributes a dress made from recycled materials such as discarded fishing nets, food packaging and felted wool. Latvian artist Inguna Gemzde creates exquisite landscapes on the inside of plastic bottle caps and bucket lids. The miniature oil paintings, 180 of which are on view for Unnatural History, depict unspoiled natural landscapes – blue skies, verdant trees, meadows, and flowering plants. Viewed through hundreds of tiny bottle caps, they strike one as windows into a greener future. Gemzde says:
“The exhibition, [Unnatural History] conveys an ambiguity of space, place and time, whilst questioning the expanding footprint of human activity and reflecting on the…intersection of the natural and industrial worlds.”
The works in Unnatural History are portals backwards or forwards (or sometimes both at once) in geologic time, offering visions from before, after, and during the tenancy of humankind. Overall, the exhibition illustrates the many ways in which the technological processes of mass mining, manufacturing, resource extraction, and large-scale industrial agriculture have altered not only the present, but also the future history of our planet.
Unnatural History features the work of Kara Artman, Jon Duff, Inguna Gemzde, Cecilia Ho, Stéphanie Morissette, Laura Petrovich-Cheney, and Kathleen Thum. The opening reception is Thursday, December 21th from 5-8pm and is free and open to the public. The exhibition will run from December 21st to March 4th. For more information, visit spartanburgartmuseum.org.
The Spartanburg Art Museum was founded in 1907 by artists Margaret Law and Josephine Sibley Couper, with the view that “art should not just be the luxury of a few, but the luxury of all.” Today, it is one of only a handful of Contemporary Art Museums operating in the Southeastern United States, supporting the creative capacities of the region through an international exhibitions program, youth outreach programs, an art school, a large permanent collection, and an extensive public art program and calendar of community events.
The Spartanburg Art Museum is a regional museum promoting contemporary visual arts by inspiring and engaging people of all ages through exhibitions and education.
Please feel free to contact our Community Development Coordinator and Curator of Collections, Mat Duncan, for more information.
Name: Mat Duncan
Phone: 864.582.7616 ext. 211