Saving the Planet (with Art ?).

Dreaming of a More Random Order, oil on canvas, 72″x72″, 1979.

One of the “nodes” of The Sixties experience was the birth of the “Eco-liberation Movement” along with the other liberation movements: Black, Women, Gay, Chicano, Sex—all had liberation applied to their urgings on the body politic; to see the world as more inclusive. Before I was a fully-born Art student, I studied Biology giving me a feeling for how the living world worked; best when it was free of human meddling. Where I grew up in “downstate” Illinois, there was a cornucopia of growing and thriving crops and critters; mostly though, it was corn and soybeans, dairy cows and hogs. It was the summer of 1959, when, in a summer-school class, my eyes were opened to a truly functioning eco-system. Our little cadre of adolescents, under the guidence of an inspired teacher, mapped all the living things we could find in a creek running through an abandoned farm, where no poison pesticides or caustic fertilizers had been applied since the Depression. Exline Slough was as an intact a system as you could find in those burgeoning days of industrial farming. This class gave me a lasting taste for visiting those intact eco-systems, where all the constituant parts were working in consort, like a symphonic orchestra, the conductor being the spindle of the stochastic processes of life. (Stochastic here used, to illuminate the trial and error/success of life—finding what works. Stochastic meaning aiming at a target. A used target will have many holes from arrows or bullets, etc. generally centered around the bull’s-eye, but most attempts will not land dead-center.) This is the randomness that brings about speciation. My taste for visiting intact eco-systems brought me to the Galapagos Islands (notorious for the approachable tameness of the creatures) where I was able to draw & paint & photograph this tiny bird (and later paint in my studio), a fly-catcher, and use her in this painting to express my feelings about the stochastic nature of nature.

What was I “aiming” at here? Jingling the bell of the “shop” of the wonderful world of nature I had entered back in 1959, “Ding-a-ling! Yoo-hoo! Anybody home?” Come in, this is your world. This became an excercise in my extreme patriotism, patriotic for the country we all inhabit together. What can artists do to become true patriots of our land we share in common? I mean, we all eat, drink, breathe, live in this shop of wonders. What can artists do to help shape the coming unity? Because if we are to survive, it will be in a unity; an Ecology? It WILL come or we will be a very diminished species. In 1970, living in DC, I attended the very first Earth Day celebration, riveting, and a lot more fun than the tear-gas billy-club demonstrations of that Vietnam War era. Love of the planet was clearly in the air. We’d all seen the Moonrise photo by Bill Anders on Apollo 8, December 24, 1968. Yep—we are really on a planet.

A clipping from the Kankakee Daily Journal, 7/23/59. Yours truly in the white T.

Three years after Apollo 8 (1971), finds me in graduate school studying sculpture in Madison, Wisconsin, having transitioned to Art studies. I was awarded a grant to build a sculpture on the shore of Lake Mendota. I built the thing of spanking fresh aluminum, a good thing to do, to feel a growing professionalism, but Geeze, what a waste of stuff—I felt like some kind of a scoundrel, but expressing my interest in liminal spaces… “Tell us what it was like to die and be resurrected, Lazarus.” So, as a corrective, for my MFA Thesis show, I decided I would only use scraps of what I could find in the other grad. studios.

The Return of Silent Lazarus, 108″ tall, aluminum, 1973. Destroyed 1975.

For my thesis show, I wanted to talk about that space between things, like that space in the Lazarus piece. My antecedent would be Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 AM, the space between awake and dream and just waking from a dream. I began a gathering process; pieces of wood, canvas, rolls of paper, found in my fellow student’s studios, all configured into my Palace. This was the birth of my adaptation of bricolage, a French term for using what is at hand. This felt very “eco-friendly” at the time, and full of virtue signaling, and that’s just what I wanted—to express my feeling for living on a fragile planet.

My Palace at 4 AM
Giacometti’s Palace at 4 AM
The Palace at 4 AM, detail.

At the same moment, at UW, I was required to “minor” in something. The usual route was some brand of history, literature, foreign language. As a Land-Grant University, there was a robust Agriculture School, so I “minored” in Vegetable Production with courses in soil chemistry, intensive cropping, etc. I was living rural, with a very vital vegetable garden, so my interest in biology blossomed into an Applied Biology project, an abiding interest at our own “Rancho Deluxe”, where we grow a lot of food (chickens, too!).

The idea of bricolage figures strongly in this narrative—the use, or re-use of our material world. A bricologiste is a kind of handy-man, a fixer, using what is at hand. MacGyver, if that reference is not too obscure. Making art out of what is at hand became a life-long practice in my own work and with Judith Selby Lang’s One Beach Plastic project with plastic pollution. The latest of these ventures, of our over 70 exhibitions, was at the shuttered Cliff House, the iconic tourist-destination restaurant in San Francisco overlooking the Pacific shoreline, where we presented, For Here or to Go in the kitchen and staging area. (26 artists were represented at that exhibit). On our first date, on Kehoe Beach, in the Point Reyes National Seashore (thanks! JFK), Judith and I discovered we had both been making Art from plastic we found on the beach three years prior to our meeting. Kismet.

For Here, or to GO, installation shot, white plastic gleaned from one beach since 1999, Land’s End at the Cliff House, 2021-2022.

To see more of this work visit our website beachplastic.com and our blog plasticforever.blogspot.com

This bricolage idea is a center of my individual work as well. As I’ve said, in other posts, the nature of watercolor painting and monotype is alieotoric (improvisational) and a bit athletic. As a result there are lots of “not quite” efforts that find their way into a pile of cut out pieces that, in turn find their way into new pieces. You can fiddle with oil paints forever, but “gesture painting” is my cup of tea. My studio walls are lined with sheet metal so the pieces can be magneted up, arranged and re-arranged into pieces that spindle around that stochastic idea. “Does this image go with that image?” Always aiming and always settling on the surprises that happen. The basis for decision making comes from the “look” and never attempting a narrative. When narrative comes in it is after the fact. The formal antecedents for this work comes from a few favorite sources among many: Japanese U-kiyoe (woodblock) prints, Kandinsky’s late work and the photography of Edward Weston.

Yoshitoshi
Weston
Kandinsky

Three of my favorite compositional forebears.

When the pieces are composed, the narrative seems to come into place, letting imagination have its sway. The stories begin to take shape, and the stories not only spindle around the stochastic process, but spindle around stories of biological processes. My feeling here is we need a lot of remedial education when it comes to understanding basic life functioning. How an oxygenated world came to be, and how that oxygen wealth, once-upon-a -time, was a death knell to the earliest creatures on Planet Earth, and how the solution to the “problem of oxygen” became a great engine toward speciation. The invention of sexual reproduction is on this Art-centered curriculum. That the sexual exchange of genetic information moved Planet Earth into this wonder-land we find ourselves a part of. To discuss energy-flow as a work of Art, is to bring the idea of metabolism front and center. The metabolic pathways of living systems are just, in the last century, becoming understood in a way that makes great medical advances possible.

These latest posts are my attempt to bring this vital information forward in a way that is entertaining to the creature we are. Do we love pictures? Our minds work in a picture world. The great cave paintings and ancient rock art all point to the attempt to inform the coming generations, that this information be understood. That we are creatures aware of our death, and the sooner we realize that this is so, we will become better stewards of Earth. This is Art’s main task. To me, the cave paintings are no mystery, they are the Stone-Age Academies.

The Mask of Lazarus

This sculpture/mask was called, for a while, the Mask of Haphaestus in honor of the maker-god at the forge. In writing this post, I realized, it harkens to that sculpture I made back in 1973, and now it seems appropriate to call it The Mask of Lasarus, ol’ Lazarus come to tell us death is real. And, to my mind with all the terrible impendings, a reminder to turn off the robots. Put down that device that cues the blues, for the cybernetic feedback loop playing back the thing that last caught your eye, will only show you more of the same, to keep eyeball glued. Yes, put it down! Lazarus says, “Death is Real.” And the final answer to the title question of “Saving the Planet with Art?” Sure can, if you wake up, climb out of the Robot’s silo, and live in Love.

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