Art faculty exhibition ruminates on environmentalism in Schick Art Gallery: Faculty pieces reflect desires to return to the natural world

Posted by Kristin Travagline

The Selected Art Faculty Exhibition in Schick Art Gallery features a variety of striking individual pieces and a collective cohesion in both appearance and theme. The works contemplate upon humanity's relationship to nature. 

Upon walking into the gallery one cannot help but assume that the artists constructed their pieces with the goal of a unified exhibition in mind. Yet, the opposite is true.

Serendipitously, the light green surfaces of professor of art Leslie Ferst's organic sculptures, "Ebb and Flow," play upon the turquoise water of the Columbia River featured in professor of art Deborah Hall's photograph, "Artifacts," across the room, which, in turn, picks up the vibrant green grass displayed in professor of art Robert Parke-Harrison's mixed media image "Bloodroot."

On the center wall of the gallery hangs Parke-Harrison's image, "The Scribe," which depicts a white winter scene, with the faint outline of pine trees in the background. In the foreground, a hand, modeled after Parke-Harrison's, draws a striking line of blood across the pristine landscape. Piano parts, a wasp's nest and medical tubes wrap around the hand, creating a device that paints the red line.

"It's like he's trying to draw a line in the snow, as though he's using his own bodily substance and fluid to create art from. This image was based on the extreme difficulty and pain of creating something new," Parke-Harrison said.

The mechanical components of "The Scribe" resonate with professor of art David Peterson's brass sculpture, "Aero II," which is comprised of many small details to present a complex, unified industrial structure that is simultaneously reminiscent of a bicycle, a skyscraper and a satellite.

However, one cannot attribute the rich interplay of these pieces to chance. The gallery director and curator, Peter Stake, took pains to assemble the exhibition in a manner that "brings out the individuality of each piece," Stake said.

Stake manages numerous aspects of the exhibition, including coordinating with the faculty 2-3 years prior to the show to determine which professors' works will be featured.

"We have so many faculty in the department that we decided it would be better to show a few faculty at a time so they can have more pieces in the show and so the students get a better idea of their work overall," Stake said.

Stake aims to exhibit a range of mediums in the show. In presenting the work, he takes into consideration the most advantageous ways for the artwork to be presented, including installation, vantage point, lighting and overall aesthetics.

Across the board, the pieces revealed a common theme and interest the artists wanted to convey: environmentalism. Several of the pieces in the exhibition convey a melancholy desire for a return to nature and nostalgia for humans' lost connection with the natural world.

Hall features three photos, out of a series of 14, taken on the Columbia River during her sabbatical in fall 2010. These pictures were taken at Priest Lake in northern Idaho where Hall visited as a child. She recalled the location being "very remote… very undeveloped; it was peaceful and wonderful and you could just go from this trail, run down, jump in this water and swim. I mean, it was crystal clear to the bottom."

However, when she visited the site last fall she was confronted with a worn in trail and private waterfront properties. Although Hall could no longer access the water from the walking path, as she was not allowed on the neighbors' properties, various welcome signs ironically greeted her along her walk.

Hall said the narrow, vertical composition of the photos reflect the narrow focus of the property owners and the narrow composition of the plots. Hall's photos "Artifacts" and "Percussions" deal with similar concerns about humans' interactions with nature and notions of the possession of nature.

Parke-Harrison's mixed media image, "Mourning," raises prominent questions about humanity's relationship with nature. "We're really interested in concepts of the environment. Over all the years of working, one of the great successes that we've found was when our work was put in the context of the environmental movement, as a voice for artists that address this issue," said Parke-Harrison, who collaborates with his wife, Shana Parke-Harrison, on all of his artwork.

The image depicts a male figure sitting in a prison-like cell with his body and face turned away from the viewer. The cool, blue-grey tones of the piece lend a melancholy mood to the scene. Yet, vibrant butterflies flit into the scene from an opening in the cell and rest upon the man's body, modeled after Parke-Harrison's own figure.

Parke-Harrison said, depending upon how the viewer interprets the image, the man may be either harming the butterflies or gently taking them into his hands. "He's in this kind of cold state of this sort of modern person out of touch with the natural world, but it's about that combined moment, that magical moment. It's hard to say what would happen next in this image," Parke-Harrison said.

Likewise, Ferst made her series "Ebb and Flow" for an exhibition based on the theme "fragile ecosystems," Ferst said. The pod-like shapes, subdued moss-like colors and inviting textures are reminiscent of coral or even fungi. "These are sort of more tactile, kind of intimate pieces," Ferst said.

The intimacy of the Schick gallery provides a comfortable venue for students and members of the Saratoga community to contemplate the intricate interplay of ideas and images brought alive by these pieces. "I hope that students start thinking about different possibilities, not just appreciating the work that is in the gallery, but thinking about possibilities for their own work. It kind of enlarges their sphere of influence and enlarges their perception," Stake said.

A book that includes the artists' backgrounds, artist statements and brief biographies is available in the gallery. The exhibition will remain open until Oct. 16.


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