Eco-art is en vogue. The renaissance of the form has cropped up in conjunction with broader social movements dedicated to and demanding action on the now lived reality of climate catastrophe. The young Zoomer generation has a voice through the Sunrise Movement. The Green New Deal is a heated policy point in this year’s Democratic primary. Passages from the long eco-political poems of Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter are popping up regularly in certain circles, and from time to time, one finds the odd quote from Thoreau’s “Walden” in their Instagram feed. The actuality of climate change and its effect on our daily lives has become ubiquitous.
“WILD,” on view through March 14 at Cambridge’s Gallery 263, is a honing of this invigorated energy. It brings together the work of 28 artists from across the country and was juried by Jane Winchell, director of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Dotty Brown Art and Nature Center. The exhibit focuses on the relation between artist and nature, especially in this world of environmental change. The works run from paintings to sculptures and photographs to installations to video.
What is most engaging about these works is their rejection of art as detritus. The temptation of producing works that exemplify the human to planet relationship in contemporary times as tainting and ugly is a base assumption. But the artists on display in “WILD” forego the expected. Each take hold of a highly personal relation — politically, ethically charged or not — to explore this perianal, complicated partnership.
“Dorchester Bay Vignette” and “Plastic Pearl” are two works that play with the intersection of water and pollution.
“Dorchester,” a short film by Kyle Browne, alternatives between a shot of live crabs in a bucket, crawling over one another to reach the top and an eerie sequence of a women just under the water-line. The woman — who is not identified — lies supine, Ophelia-like, and superimposed over her is an image of a brick tied to a long purple rope.
“Plastic Pearl” is a detailed oil painting measuring 46 by 36 inches by Moonhee Kim. The painting shows half of an oyster shell. Rather than a pearl nestled inside, there are plastic and glass bottles with some bits of plastic bags. Emanating from under the junk are rays of light; perhaps the pearl is still there, being choked by the pollution — but that’s left for the viewer to speculate. The two works are among the more overt works in the exhibition, but their originality and rejection of making what they depict as grotesque, but more layered, is moving.
Six photographs serve as the glue that holds the show together.
“Dog Bites Bear,” taken by Ralph Robinson, is a snapshot of two dogs reacting to large posters of brown bears. One dog, with a sleek black coat, is barking assertively at one of the posters while its partner stands intrigued and wearing a red vest. The environment around them is gloomy and stark. The black dog is muzzled. It is obvious that we are in an urban setting: there is a dirty stream running behind the rusted-out chain-link fence the posters are affixed to; in the distance is a stoic apartment building and a cloudy pearl-gray sky.
Another striking photograph is “At Home” by Sasha Pedro. We see a young woman — I assumed was the photographer — sitting at a white table. She is watering a common houseplant — which may or not be fake — with a plastic Poland Spring water bottle. Her face is passive and indifferent; her head is crowned with a collection of blue, pink, green and white flowers that appear to be artificial. Pinned to the wall behind her is what appears to be a bird made of paper or cloth in the crucifixion pose.
The way these two photographs play with the notion of the artificial and the real is bracing. So much of our modern relationship to nature falls between these two extremes, and to see it staged is confronting. More so in that what is artificial in the two images are not cast off bits of junk, but specifically placed, even misleading, additions to the environment. We tend to overlook litter. It is harder to overlook a poster of a bear or a crucified paper bird.
The placement of the photographs at different intervals keeps one grounded as one visits more adventurous and abstract works in the show. They serve as a solid reality check; recorded documents that sit starkly among the more challenging works.
“Rhino” by Gretchen Woodman is very much the centerpiece of the exhibition. The mammoth work consists of three large sheets of silk on which Woodman has painted a rhinoceros. Each sheet depicts the rhino in different stages of composition, but viewed head-on, they make a detailed and arresting image of the animal. It sways gently back and forth, as if breathing, and blurs the image, drawing to question the existence of the rhino in our highly human-centric world.
While “Rhino” is one of the largest mixed media pieces in the exhibit, “Mine,” by Matt Hufford, is one of the smallest. The piece is composed of a food tin found by the artist that is rusted and crushed, as if driven over, and Hufford has covered it with gouache of pale blue, lavender and a dusty red. Of all the pieces in the show, “Mine” is the rawest and, in many ways, the most fitting to the theme. It is the most explicitly salvaged work and Hufford’s skill at bleeding the delicate colors into one another feels as natural as the weathered rust.
However, two works that use an animal for purposes of décor and vanity stand out from the rest.
In “The Country Fair 01,” photographer Steven Edson presents a photograph of a man with a coyote pelt wrapped around his shoulders. The man’s arms are covered in tattoos and the fur still holds its shine. The coyote’s face is flattened and elongated in the way common with such pelts. The coyote no longer has its eyes. The photograph is bathed in late-afternoon light, tinging the man’s arms and the coyote’s fur with an almost supernatural gold.
By contrast, “Silver Fox Taxidermy,” a highly-detailed oil painting by Wing Na Wong, meticulously shows a taxidermy fox that feels more alive than if we were presented with the original. It is a rich portrait of browns and shimmering whites. But much like Edson’s photograph, it is the eyes that are most disconcerting. While just about every inch of the painting is vibrant, the fox’s eyes feel dead in a way that is usually reserved for only those times when you’re looking at the stuffed animal itself.
This balance that both Edson and Wing Na Wong capture is what makes them the most striking works in the show. The ways we manipulate the bodies of other animals, as we do with the elements, in order to make a beauty we find captivating is an age-old habit we confront over and over again.
With the exception of “Silver Fox Taxidermy, the other paintings in the exhibit, while wonderful pieces, do not feel as belonging to the theme as the other works. “Colony Collapse” is an energetic and beautiful acrylic painting by Sophy Tuttle that depicts bees and their honeycomb. Woven into the honeycomb are chemical compounds. Tuttle’s style is slick and painstakingly done and the content is in keeping with environmental change, but it lacks the personal relationship of artist to planet that the other works in the show have at their core.
What makes “WILD” a confronting experience and exhibitions is the varied perspectives that it gives platform to. There is something at once comforting and challenging about looking at a problem like climate change, or even on a smaller scale, just how we, as humans, interact with the environment, when given a plethora of different examples. We can make such problems manageable by confining them to select images and bits of data, but to be presented with works by artists that are attuned to the issue of environmental catastrophe, especially when the works are unique and personal, is another story. The strength of “Wild” lies in the detailed and multivariate perspectives each artist brings, showing us a different, on-the-ground perspective that cannot be ignored.
(“WILD” is on view through March 14 at Gallery 263, 263 Pearl St., Cambridge, Massachusetts. For more information, visit gallery263.com.)