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GO WITH THE 'FLOE': Christel Dillbohner evokes the arctic by massing cones suspended from the ceiling.

Reduce, Reuse, Respond

Is the eco-art trend a mere fad or a sturdy critique that's here to stay?

By Gretchen Giles

Katie Kurtz is really worried. She has good reason to be. So do the rest of us. "Polar bears are eating other polar bears!" she exclaims. "That's never happened before." It is detestable to have to literally spell it out, but polar bears of course are eating other polar bears not because they have suddenly developed a heady taste for cannibalism, but because the ice that has supported their species for the millennia is thinning, melting and disappearing. And when our most "charismatic" animals are threatened with extinction and we still do almost nothing to save them, the ground is disappearing beneath our own feet as well.So it's no small topic that has brought Kurtz out to a coffee shop in San Francisco's Mission district on an unseasonably mild, even for S.F., August day. It's the polar bears, the hurricanes, the triple-digit temperatures recorded last month in Seattle. It's global warming, climate change and environmental destruction. While scientists, politicians, corporate heads and Al Gore discuss it, Kurtz believes that it's the artist's job to comment upon it.

To that end, Kurtz proposes a whole new realm of critical theory through which to evaluate and interpret modern art, dubbing it "visual eco-criticism." Already an accepted practice in literary circles, eco-criticism questions how nature and the environment are depicted in both artworks and the media; analyzes art—even that which wasn't create with, say, climate change in mind—through the prism of global concerns; questions the role of class, gender, race and sexuality in an environmental context; encourages artists to engage with activists in their work; and even examines the "footprint" of the artwork: the sustainability of the materials used, their toxicity, their possible longevity in the atmosphere.Marin County's Headlands Center for the Arts has organized a panel on the topic slated for Aug. 16. Joining Kurtz are photographer Barry Underwood, sculptor and painter Christel Dillbohner and sculptor Christine Lee. Adding tension to the event is that Headlands program director Jessica Brier chose the artists, not Kurtz, and two of them don't identify themselves as eco-artists in the slightest.

While Lee uses cast-off wooden shims and abandoned phone books in her constructions, Dillbohner and Underwood just kind of do their thing, she by massing painted paper cones in palpable formation and painting mysterious encaustic landscapes, he by illuminating pristine outdoor environments with lavishly unnatural light. Each reflects the outside world but both are unwilling for a new mantle to be placed upon them.

"Barry was interesting because he wasn't a good fit, and I'm interested in how a panel discussion that actually puts artists in the same room who disagree and come at this from different angles might work," Brier says. "Christel has really taken Katie to task on very specific points and doesn't want to be pigeon-holed by this definition."Certainly, it's natural for a person who makes his or her living through creative pursuits to shy away from neat slots and tidy summations. Proposing a whole new critical theory is fairly bold, particularly for a new MFA graduate, which Kurtz is, recently receiving her degree from the California College of the Arts. But what really begins to emerge from discussion with several art makers and professionals is where eco-art—the Big Green (as in money) of the Now—actually finds a foothold. And furthermore, is it an enduring trend that will mark this century or merely a short-term panicked fad?

Standing in the side gallery of the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art last week, Dillbohner oversees the installation of her newest one-person exhibit, "Ice Floe." A native of Cologne, Germany, she instructs the young man assisting her in a softly accented voice as he creates shadows. "I don't see myself as an environmental artist," she explains, taking a break from the installation. "I see myself more as a human being in the world, and there are many things that we have to consider, including personal history and collective understanding. The human being in this world is in a certain phase."That Dillbohner is not an "eco-artist" by her own definition does not imply that she is unaware of greenhouse gas emissions and the plight of the polar bear. For "Ice Floe," she has filled the SJICA's gallery with some 1,500 paper filters, cones ordinarily purchased at paint stores, which she sees as an apt metaphor for the corpus. "I started using the filter as a symbol for the human body," she explains. "We take things in and filter them out, the residue gives us energy, and, in many ways, this is the basis for making decisions, for having a life, for taking action."Dillbohner became interested in the far north for much the same reasons that Admiral Peary might have: its still, mute beauty.

"I had been reading a lot of explorers, naturalists and writers about the arctic," she says. "I was really intrigued by the idea that the people who came over the Bering Strait stayed. Why? It must be so amazing there that they simply stopped."

Dillbohner is not prone to pat answers, preferring to ask questions. "What does global warming even mean?" she asks. "We feel incompetent to deal with the reality of it. As people, we have to take the power back and think about what we can do on a small scale that spreads out into the collective. Is there a future? I don't know. We can only think as individuals." Barry Underwood considers his photography to be "theater," explaining that when he takes his lights and camera out into the wilderness, he is "underlining nature," highlighting and drawing attention to glories that might otherwise go overlooked. In many ways, his startling use of neon under the roots of trees or illuminated blobs glowing red on a lake's surface call to mind those satisfying moments when one is outside and the light hits the trees or spots a cloud in a way that makes the hiker stop short. Interviewed over Skype from the Headlands Center, where he is an artist in residence, Underwood says, "It's kind of heightening or falsifying the documentation of photography, it speaks within that vernacular, that subjective documentation." In other words, photographer Barry Underwood is interested in photography—not eco-art."I think that you have to be aware of things that are around you," he explains, reminding that "that there are things out there to be photographed; you just have to be open to them and observant to them." He allows, "That's where I would play into the realm of visual eco-criticism."

Sculptor Ned Kahn doesn't flinch at the term "eco-artist" or the idea of visual eco-criticism. This MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellow works with physics, allowing unseen phenomena to activate his work, creating vortices that water whirls rapidly through, hanging metal discs that are flirted with by the wind and so on. Speaking by phone from his Sebastopol studio, Kahn says flatly, "I feel that in light of the current climate change, it's non-optional not do useful things."

As his career has flourished, Kahn has become increasingly involved with architects in solving problems for green building projects, recently working on a $24 billion resort in Singapore—a country with daily precipitation and no reservoirs—to collect rainwater on the roof and circulate it through the complex in an artful and sustainable way. Being Ned Kahn means knowing a lot of scientists, and that often means knowing more than he might like. "I have a friend who's an amazing physicist, and he goes around giving this lecture that there's no hope," Kahn says with a short laugh. "In order for climate change to be reversed, you'd have to completely retool all the economies of the world, and it would have to happen now. It would require such a massive redoing of society and the way we all live that there's just no way it's going to happen. After hearing his two-hour lecture, you just want to go out and kill yourself.

"On the flip side of it," he continues, "I'm sort of intrigued with the whole idea that nature was never controllable in the first place, and that nature always has been and is a changing thing and the weird way that we're part of this dance. We've altered it but we don't even know how we've altered it. You can depressed about it or you can get intrigued about it. For my own sanity, I've tried to be intrigued about it."

Arizona artist Matthew Moore's best-known piece may be his own farm. Selling off his family's holdings lot by lot to suburban sprawl outside of Phoenix, Moore finally aped the mess by obtaining blueprints to the newest housing subdivision adjacent to his property and planting his own fields exactly to its specifications. Black rye outlined the asphalt streets; red rye, the rooftops. Moore is nothing if not pragmatic; come harvest time, he simply disked it, as all farmers must. He's currently working on a Rube Goldberg–esque conveyor belt for the city of Pasadena that is placed in a long-vacant lot and shoots out lettuce starts at regular intervals onto the street through the lot's chain-link fence. "It's overdone and elaborate and ridiculous, which is how I feel about the conventional agricultural system," Moore, who grows both conventional and organic produce, explains by phone from his Arizona home.

Moore doesn't hesitate to identify himself as an eco-artist, one whose work can readily withstand the rigors of a new critical theory. "I think that, at this point, if you're not in the eco-art game, you're completely na´ve," he says. But it does raise its own set of questions. "I've done things where I've used materials I shouldn't have, like mylar to evoke water in the desert," he admits, listing the rhetoric that accompanies: "Is the message strong enough to require using that material? Are there any biodegradable materials that could have been used instead? If so, what's the cost of those materials? In a purely material consideration, that's not even conceptually thinking about what you're saying with the materials you use. I think that you can go on and on and on."

Ultimately, Moore worries that eco-art, even with its own fancy new theory, could be nothing more than a fad. "The art world is a very fickle thing," he says. "There's always the worry that this will go away or that people will be tired of it, like the overtly political work of the 1980s. People really reacted horribly to that. Any sort of artwork now has to be very subtle. You don't want to give people answers. The more successful work now is asking questions. Then your work can function across disciplines."

Sam Bower oversees the online, a virtual kunsthalle that operates out of Corte Madera but serves the world. With no physical presence, the Green Museum already saves on footprint. Bower's not too concerned about eco-art and its accompanying critical theory being flash-in-the-pan ideas. "I think that our challenge in a larger sense is to direct the culture to find ways of drawing a larger, deeper, shift towards sustainability," he says. "And it will involve some aspects that are faddish and short-lived and others that are much deeper and more profound."

Bower encourages the dialogue to go beyond those with opposable thumbs. "We need to begin to look at art from a nonhuman perspective," he says. "Fundamentally, if we're really talking about things that are supposed to help the earth, we need to look at art that the worms and the watershed would appreciate," he says."I really see the ultimate challenge for this century is to begin to look beyond the concept of what art is and do beautiful, elegant art in ways that is culturally rich and delicious."Moore, who describes his farming practices as placing him in both the devil and angel camps, gets the last word. "Art is about naming things, and we've been in a long stretch of not being able to name anything," he says. "It doesn't matter what your work is called as long as it's moving us all forward."

Katie Kurtz leads a panel discussion on visual eco-criticism with Barry Underwood, Christel Dillbohner and Christine Lee on Sunday, Aug. 16, from 4pm to 6pm. Headlands Center for the Arts, 944 Fort Barry, east wing, bldg. 944, Sausalito. $10 nonmembers. 415.331.2787.

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