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'Fragile Ecologies': A Touch of Green

August 04, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

LAGUNA BEACH — Humankind has made a mess of the planet. It's so bad some artists feel they can't go on doing business as usual. Working as individuals or in teams they blend aesthetic insight with the sensitivity of landscape architects and the conservationists' conviction that the real world must be acted upon.

Results of this dedication to Mother Earth can be seen in "Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists' Interpretations and Solutions" at the Laguna Museum of Art. Organized by the Queens Museum of Art, it's on national tour under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.

The idea of the show may give some art lovers a headache. These days they go to galleries to get in touch with the higher muse and find themselves faced with callow preachments on the evils of society. They can rest assured that this exhibition doesn't work like that. Somehow the idealism that drives it makes it feel as sweetly pastoral as a Claude Lorrain landscape.

Not that it's sentimental. One of the nicest bits in it is a meandering row of television sets. Resting on the floor, their screens face upward filled with the waters of a babbling river. The sound is soothing, the reflections enchanting even if the whole thing is made of videotape. Where can this lovely place be?

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 6, 1994 Orange County Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong name--In Calendar's Thursday review of "Fragile Ecologies," a director of a student program at Wilson High School was misidentified. The correct name is Susan Boyle.

Believe it or not, it's the Los Angeles River.

In 1989 video artist Cheri Gaulke teamed up with Susan Barron who heads a special program for seniors at Wilson High School. Working with students they launched "L.A. River Project." The kids found patches of thriving life along the course of the famously dry bed. They came up with visionary but workable plans to turn this sinkhole into an Edenic park. They learned that sometimes a drawing is a thing of beauty in itself, sometimes a plan to improve reality.

The team of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison is certainly the best known of Eco-Art practitioners. As far back as the '70s they combined the growing fashion for conceptual art with earthworks projects like those of Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer) and, of course, Christo.

In 1971 their ideas were so new they got the artists in trouble. As part of an exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery they intended to celebrate nature by cooking up some real catfish that were part of their piece. The tabloid press exploited the idea. English animal lovers panicked. A scandal ensued. It was finally sorted out, but the incident was traumatic.

Their present piece is mellower. Titled "Breathing Space for the Sava River," it follows the course of a Yugoslavian stream using maps, text and particularly lovely color photographs. The combination makes the waterway seem like a living thing. It's a world in itself, supporting aquatic life. It's also on a journey, dispensing goodness along the route, nourishment for land and people, power for dams and beauty for all. It's also a great place for people to dump stuff. That's how we repay its kindness.

Artist Buster Simpson is as worried as everybody else but he tries to lighten up a bit. In one project he tried to help the Hudson River by giving it giant Tums.

It seems that when we are not polluting nature we are smothering it. Who needs a park when you can build a nice parking lot?

Artist Alan Sonfist tried to convince New Yorkers that all the trees in town shouldn't be imprisoned in Central Park. He planted a nice little urban forest of native trees in Greenwich Village. Mierle Laderman Ukeles took another tack. She accepted the unlikely post of artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation to push her ideas on recycling.

Actually, all of this sounds rather familiar. Assemblage artists have been reclaiming the effluvium of American consumerism for decades. There is a wonderful, dippy, quixotic, utopianism about this work and the way it flies so cheerfully and earnestly in the face of the facts.

Patricia Johanson managed to save a sick lagoon in Dallas. Nancy Holt thinks urban life, packaged food and artificial light have made us forget the crucial role of the sun. To remedy this she's building Dark Star Park in Virginia. Its centerpiece will be a pyramid-style mound on a 57-acre site made of 10 million tons of garbage. Artist Mel Chin uses plants to clean up toxic wastes. Up in central California, Heather McGill and John Roloff are hard at work on a shrine and habitat for indigenous hummingbirds.

All of these notions are poetically appealing on paper. Artists being notoriously reclusive and anti-authoritarian by stereotype could not be blamed for leaving them as conceptual fantasies. But all try to make them real. They talk to experts. They joust with bureaucrats. Anyone who's ever tried to get a simple building permit knows that takes a lot of courage.

* Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, through Oct. 8, (714) 494-8971, Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

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