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Artists' Varied Visions of Our Legacy to Earth


A child's fairy tale about beautiful maidens turning ugly toads into princes may not be interpreted as a glaring example of environmental destruction, but in artist Cheri Gaulke's new video installation, humans become the betrayer in a "failed love affair between humans and nature."

Gaulke's piece is one of nine works included in the group show, "Environmental Legacies: Countdown to the Millennium," which recently opened at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.

Included are installations addressing a variety of environmental issues ranging from the corrosive action of smog to the long-term effects of nuclear testing.

The show was curated by artist and art writer Nancy Ann Jones through the activist group Artists Contributing to the Solution (ACTS) and focuses on what today's children will inherit in terms of global environmental problems.

Participating are Los Angeles artists Gaulke, Jeffrey Vallance, Kim Abeles, Patrick Mohr, Mark Niblock-Smith and John Outterbridge; San Diego artists Deborah Small and David Beck-Brown, and the late Carol Neiman, who was president of the National Women's Caucus for Art when she died of cancer last year.

"We as decision-makers hold the children hostage," said Outterbridge, whose installation features wall works revolving around a poem about a time when children will no longer be able to take joy in nature. "It's like saying to a daughter, 'I love you very much, but right now I want to poison the Earth.' "

While only two of the show's artists have children of their own, most of the pieces have been created with a deep personal basis, such as David Beck-Brown's metal "Shield of the Sun" sculpture, which addresses the relationship between the declining ozone layer and the increase of skin cancer. Beck-Brown, who was a heavy frequenter of Los Angeles beaches as a youth, now has skin cancer and advocates "sun shields" such as sunglasses and sunscreen.

Also highly personal is Niblock-Smith's installation, a special room that contains a written story placed among tree branches, leaves, stumps and other woodsy materials and deals with his own coming of age as it related to nature.

Yet another personal work is Abeles' installation of works using smog as an actual material to etch designs on glass. This time, Abeles' "Smog Collectors" (a separate series is currently on view at Laguna Art Museum's satellite gallery) are placed inside furniture and toys that belonged to her 2-year-old daughter, Zoe.

Abeles' sentiments underscore the whole movement of ACTS, a loosely knit group of 35 or so Los Angeles and Orange County artists who began meeting monthly or semi-monthly nearly two years ago to plan environment-related exhibitions, panel discussions on issues such as toxic artists materials, and events such as clean-ups of the L.A. River.

The "Environmental Legacies" exhibition is the fourth in a series of recent shows organized by the group in locations including the Women's Building, Orange County Center for Contemporary Art and the streets of downtown Fullerton. According to artist Janice De Loof, one of the group's organizers, ACTS (an arm of the Southern California Women's Caucus for Art) provides a means for "artists to come out of our isolation and work together to use art as a tool to make a difference in terms of these ecological problems."

In addition, she says, the group's activities often bring together community and political leaders "in the name of art" who then become interested in the problems addressed by the artists. Such was the case with a recent Orange County event which sparked a community recycling program, De Loof said.

That spirit of unity, and "not just pointing the finger," was what prompted Jones, herself a mother of five and a grandmother of five, to curate the Pasadena show.

One piece that truly "makes a difference," Jones noted, is Vallance's installation, which includes a copy of a $500 check he donated to the environmental group Greenpeace. The sum is the amount of the honorarium that Vallance will receive for his participation in "Environmental Legacies."

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