The art of earth and energy
Desert Rock art exhibit begins to take shape


by Jules Masterjohn

Artists have been using their perceptions and talents to comment on our changing world since the modern era. The Industrial Revolution brought about radical shifts in social, economic and political relationships. Particularly after World War I and the devastating losses due to advanced weapons, humanity felt its powerlessness in the face of mechanization. The art movements of Dada and Surrealism formed and flourished in Europe at this time, to address the insanity revealed during the war. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” a urinal removed from a bathroom and placed on a pedestal in a gallery, epitomized the perception that the world had lost its sense and fallen into absurdity. Avant garde artists associated with these movements produced images and manifestos that challenged the status quo assumptions of an orderly world that is predictable and safe. Nearly 100 years later, the tradition of questioning the powers that be is alive and well. The perseverance of life’s creative force can be seen in artists’ work the world over.

For those makers who are interested in contributing to historical momentum by making art to impact social change, the Center of Southwest Studies is hosting a juried exhibit, “Connections: Earth + Artist = A Tribute Art Show in Resistance to Desert Rock.” The organizer, Venaya Yazzie, a Diné/Hopi artist, has watched the health of humans and the natural environment deteriorate on the Navajo Reservation over the last 25 years. With two coal-burning power plants already located in the area, the proposed Desert Rock facility has raised concerns and protest from individuals and groups across the region. Yazzie is calling on artists to “use your art to give voice” on behalf of the environment. This exhibit can be interpreted as a call for a healthier planet, to make expressions against environmental and human violence, to create visual commentary on humankind’s hunger for power-literal and symbolic, and perhaps, to craft love letters to Mother Earth.

Independently and simultaneously, another individual from the Fort Lewis community has been considering the interconnected nature of humans, power and the earth. Art student Erik Nelsen presented his take on this interface in his solo exhibit, “Energy-Land-Air-People,” on display last week at the Exit Gallery in the Fine Art Building. Nelsen’s installation showed his interest in the energy infrastructure by combining photographs, paintings and a video depicting power plants, electrical lines and trains. His exhibit statement declared, “Structures and systems are now so embedded within the fabric of our viewshed, and consequently, our perception, that we speed along hardly noticing them or giving them a second thought.” He hopes that his investigation will reveal the “consequences of living under and within such systems of domestic environmental colonization and consumption.” It was a thought-provoking installation that demonstrated a level of intellectual engagement and conceptual integrity not usually seen in a student presentation.

Nelsen’s work is also included and on view through today, April 24, in the 47th Annual Juried Student Exhibition at the FLC Fine Art Gallery. Juror, artist, educator and writer Ilze Aviks chose Nelsen’s oil painting, “American Heroes,” as one of the 89 works in the show. The painting is visually intricate, rendered in smoky tones, with images of man and machine merging into one matrix. Skillfully done, there is subtleness and irony to his work that is quietly compelling, a quality that Aviks looked for while making her selections for the exhibit. She admitted, though, “An artwork didn’t have to have skill in order for me to find merit in it.” It did, however, need to show sincerity, shift her perceptions, and confront or engage her.

These qualities can be found in nearly all the works presented, and many are technically, artistically and conceptually well accomplished. Kristen Smith’s tongue-in-cheek mixed-media piece, “Product Endorsement,” is a collection of caricatures of the 2008 presidential candidates lusciously painted on small food boxes – a comment on the marketing inherent in our political system. Her two “Media Icons,” loosely painted portraits of male news anchors, are surrounded in gold paint, suggesting the medieval convention of the halo to convey a sacred or precious position in our culture. Smith seems interested in using her developed style and artistic voice to comment on the manipulation-based consumerism in American culture and cajoling us into awareness. John Debbink’s assemblage, “Full Sail,” takes us in a completely different direction. Using found objects, an unidentifiable red metal form attached to a traditionally styled knicknack shelf, he has created a cool and enigmatic object that engages the unconscious, allowing for individualistic interpretations.

Hopefully, artists of diverse voices will submit work to “Connections: Earth + Artist = A Tribute Art Show in Resistance to Desert Rock,” providing scope and breadth of perspective. The best art pokes, prods and provokes us to see and understand things that we had not previously understood, and cajoles, chides and compels us to action of the highest order. Some art describes conditions and problems, other art solicits action and solutions, still other forms inspire us to reach into the unknown. Questions and answers lie within the creative process, and artmaking can and does change the world if that is our intention. Whether absurdist sculpture, social commentary or reality-based landscape, lend your creativity to the dialogue. Be part of the discussion and contribute to the solution. •

Applications for the Desert Rock show can be downloaded from: http://swcenter.fort lewis.edu or by request at YAZZIE_V @fortlewis.edu. For information on the event and show call 382-6982 or (505) 947-7086.ication submissions is May 9

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