In the Ruins of the Anthropocene

Shane Tolbert, The Magazine, January 30, 2019

I enter the gallery and see the word “Anthropocene” in vinyl on the wall, and my first thought is: it’s a tired conversation in an art context, but let’s shake the tree and see if anything good comes out. The Anthropocene is a recently coined term to describe the geological epoch of human impact on the planet, a term most closely attached to climate-change conversations. Many argue whether this epoch started with the Industrial Age, the Trinity tests, or the rise in commercial agricultural practices and large-scale geo engineering, but all agree it is the age we are currently in.

Yvette Serrano, Camino Justicia, 2018, photograph, 16 x 24 in. Courtesy the artist.
A pair of photographs by Yvette Serrano, Camino Justicia and Ojo de Agua, serve as textbook examples of the show’s theme. Both images frame a Santa Fe County Automated Bulk Water Dispensing Facility (aka a county water station). The images are neutral, and the only pleasing aspect is the crisp symmetry of the water station flanked by a light post on either side. That said, pleasure is not the primary purpose of the work. This water station utility is part of a larger complex that includes the county jail and the sheriff department. These components function as entities of control and dispersal, but the image also offers a benign scene of rural life. Speaking to this work from across the room, another artist comments on public utilities and the landscape. Dylan McLaughlin’s Field Notion—Notation I is a print of what I think to be an aerial satellite or drone image of the power grid in nature, as a long horizontal band following the power lines. I know McLaughlin as a video artist, so I’m sure there’s another layer to this that I haven’t picked up on. Where the McLaughlin field work operates as clean documentation, the painter Amie LeGette interprets a vision of a landscape laid waste by byproducts of natural resource extraction. In Veiled, LeGette serves up a landscape with greens more aligned with the toxic marshes and wetlands surrounding Gulf Coast oil refineries than the verdant
pastures of a healthy ecosystem.

A quieter work takes us to the streets of commerce in Paris. Drew Lenihan offers a set of photos, sound work, and a cube planter. As an installation, it is a bit clunky, but after I request the sound be turned on, the photographs start to open up. The photographs, French Colonial I, II, III, capture doleful indoor plants situated in windows of nondescript storefronts along the sidewalk. The hip-level perspectives make me think Lenihan captured the images quickly, as though he found what he needed in passing on the way to somewhere else. This gives the images, otherwise banal, a kind of speed and urgency. The audio imports ambient noise, traffic sounds, and cafe chatter from some distant other place—what I thought were the same streets the photographs send you to, but later learned are recordings from the American Museum of Natural History. The cube planter filled with easy-to-care-for lobby and waiting-room plants is redundant for me, but it does reinforce the “contained nature” demonstrated in the photographs. The diptych, Desecrated Sands, by Chaz John, Indigenous artist and activist, references the Standing Rock protests with a graphite diptych dated October 22, 2016: a record of a mound of clothes formed by the police raids and then subsequently burned. The well-rendered graphite flames only add to the potency of its politically charged pyre. Tangentially, the mound of clothing in John’s diptych also calls to mind the excessive waste of late capitalism found in “fast fashion” (a practice born from retailers’ desire to profit off passing trends as inexpensively as possible, only to accelerate material waste).

The show feels like a casting call with eighteen artists, likely timed for the slow season, and this is the only curatorial shortcoming of note. The exhibition could have been limited to the artists who more accurately speak directly to ideas concerning our society’s impact on the planet, like Serrano’s close-to-home focus on municipalities, the shift in scale to John’s commentary on the federal government, and the quietly grinding gears of commerce in Lenihan’s photographs.

SHANE TOLBERT
b. Corsicana, TX, Shane Tolbert currently lives and works in El Rito, NM, as an artist and educator. Tolbert's work is currently featured in Under/erasure, curated by Heather & Raphael Rubinstein, at Pierogi, NY. He teaches painting and drawing at Northern New Mexico College in Española.