Nancy Nesvet’s photographs and large-scale oil paintings, on view alongside sculptures by Larry Ringgold in “enDANGERd” through November 16 at Washington, D.C.’s Zenith Gallery, take entirely different turns of portraying the sea. In the paintings, the sea is vast, changing and tumultuous: in the photographs, murky depths pull me to look closely at the details. Those details are both threatening and beautiful, making the photographs look like a coming environmental apocalypse.
There is a masterful handle on scale in her paintings. We know polar bears to be substantial, but in Nesvet’s eight paintings, they are microscopic, appearing in the far distance, unreachable and not treacherous at all. The bears are stranded on icebergs broken off from the mother glacier, with strong seas pushing them apart. “If but all the seas rise up,” 48” x 58”, the unending seascape shows two polar bears, standing near one another on a broken-off iceberg. They are at the viewer’s eye level imploring me to seek them out as a focal point, and they look right back at you.
In that moment, I felt part of the composition; faced by environmental disaster, where waves, sea, icebergs and clouds are powerful, interchangeable and inevitable. In “Stranded,” 50” x 42”, icebergs look as if they’ve been sliced and separated, climbing the composition like ladder rungs. Mid-way up, a polar bear has separated from the other three, with a vast distance between them. None of the bears stand on stable ground; they are stranded from one another, and from solid land.
Nesvet’s large format C-print photographs of pier pylons and shallow water, photographed at Portland’s 150-year old ferry pier looks closely and blurs sunlight, depths and shadows. The wood is obviously old and saturated, with creosote stains and barnacles showing life. Like her paintings, the ephemeral point of view is specific and all encompassing. For the photographs, the viewer is at water-level, as if partially submerged, removed from the stability of land. What we see is the mystery of dark water and the sunken fragility of man-made structures.
In “Green Wonderland,” I feel as if the water will continue to rise and overtake the dock. Most of the image is a long, dark reflection, with one straight and one diagonal pylon, connecting at an apex framing two dark spaces behind them. It is frightening, but strangely still, instilling a feeling of the calm before the storm.
Larry Ringgold’s sculptures take on process and discovery in a different way. By collecting driftwood — long tossed by the sea, and once very much alive — he builds endangered animals out of what we otherwise consider as nothing but wave breakers, perhaps cast up by a storm. Knotty burls and shredded sweeps are carefully chosen. The heft, shapes, and carved elements of each piece of driftwood, come together to make an animal that looks endangered. Due to his source material, there will only ever be one exactly like it; each of his animals are the last of their kind. There are a few herons, all distinctly posed in minimalist vignettes. “Homage to Vince,” 47” x 94” x 29”, a life-sized rhino, a tribute to Vince the white rhino, who was killed by poachers within the safety of the Parc Zoologique de Thoiry in France, greets gallery visitors in the front sculpture garden. He is strong, with broad muscle groups and character.
In the center of the gallery between Nesvet’s photography and paintings is “Peeps, Tree Frog,” 52” x 56” x 18”, where Ringgold takes a tiny frog and gives it a human scale, posed between tree limbs. Each knuckle and joint appear to contain enough momentum to launch onto the next tree — or the viewer — in an instant. Knowing its true size, though, shows me how delicate it is. The tree frog exemplifies balance, what it takes to maintain, and how easy it would be to lose balance. The frog challenges the viewer to notice and admire it, and also, to reflect on the balance we are not keeping.
“EnDANGERd” unites the viewer with the natural environment and those in it. The works are beautiful, current and on point, dangerous and encompassing. It shows the risk and devastation global warming poses, reminding us how diverse and fragile life is in our beautiful, if threatened world.
(“Nancy Nesvet and Larry Ringgold: enDANGERd” continues through November 16, 2019, at Zenith Gallery, 1429 Iris St. NW, Washington, D.C. The show’s closing reception takes place on Saturday, November 16 from 2-5 p.m. For more information, call (202) 783-2963.)