I’ll admit that I have trouble with exhibitions about the environmental crisis. Though I try not to, I too often find myself wandering these exhibitions with the resigned attitude of too many concerned citizens, wondering too loudly: what can art really do for a looming environmental catastrophe? The thought of gazing into interpretations of our fucked-up past and impending doom filled me with fatigue before I even left my apartment. I didn’t want to go. Which is exactly why I needed to go.
Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded, even if in a morbid way, that people do care—really care—about the fate of humanity. The artists featured in “Environment/s/tallation” at the Bridgeport Art Center care. They are concerned and yearning in similar ways to me, and they are making it known through their art.
A lot of the usual environmental suspects are present: netting, plastics, oil and fabric, twisting and churning through the room. That’s not to say the exhibition itself is usual, it’s just to say there is no subtlety here. But what’s the use of subtlety anymore?
“Deepwater Horizon: Suppuration” by Marci Rubin—who also curated the show—is a repurposed display of her previous work by the same title. The original piece was hung in Bridgeport Art Center in 2010, the same year as the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, an ecological disaster that lasted eighty-seven days and dumped 205.8 million gallons of oil and 225,000 tons of methane into the Gulf of Mexico. An enduring image from the disaster is of rescue workers bathing oil-slicked marine birds in Dawn dish soap.
In Rubin’s 2023 revamp of the piece, a wall is strung with a heavy heap of thrifted materials, the enormity of their weight sagging and spilling onto the floor. The only new material Rubin purchased for this iteration was a bottle of Dawn. A purchase, she notes for the viewer, that she still feels conflicted about.
This type of internal conflict is endemic to environmentalism, as individuals respond to a crisis not only global in scale but systemically intersectional. The individual consumer-viewer can almost infinitely ask more of themselves: but what about plastic? But what about meat? But what about driving? But what about the neighborhood I live in?
This complexity is strategically whittled down to a single, potent line in Michael F. Gallagher’s “Forest for the Trees,” which assumes the angle of environmental justice. According to Gallagher, “recognition of white as a racial identity is a fundamental step in moving toward equity and in understanding white privilege,” he writes. “It’s time to see The Forest for the Trees.”
Gallagher’s forest is thirteen evenly spaced crumples of white fabric, delicately strung from the rafters, with a thin black tree trunk hovering beneath each one. The trees sway gently to the pulse of an overhead fan, and visitors are encouraged to wander through.
Moving from one work to the next is a whiplash of environmental issues. Similar to the real-life experience, there is no palette cleanser offered in between. Some will prefer the singular focus of Gallagher’s forest, others may be drawn to the profuse layering of Hereaclitus Here Vernon. Hereaclitus’ works were made by shredding their older drawings and reusing them as materials (along with jewelry, shells, glitter, vintage pins, gems, poems, enamel, and a pair of fairy wings) for paintings and masks.
This repurposing and layering is what the exhibition points to as a whole. Almost every piece—Gallagher’s being the exception—explicitly states its own material narrative, where the materials came from and why it was important to reuse them. Bryan Northup’s plastic and foam rolls, bound and cut like sushi, deal with repurposing on a cosmic scale. Northup is fascinated by the idea of plastics having once been another material in the universe. Bobbi Meier constructs three-dimensional wall pieces, and even some wearable art, out of cheaply thrifted feminine fabrics—sequins, feathers, fake pink fur—that are as shiny and disposable as lip gloss. Toby Zallman is very concerned with plastic bags.
Christine Forni’s “Beautiful Disease” branches covered in shimmering pyrite, collected from abandoned mines where her family lives, tell their own story exceptionally well (with a little help from wall text). In short: pyrite is a byproduct of abandoned mines. When the pyrite seeps into waterways and weathers, it turns the water acidic. The acidity dissolves aluminum and manganese held in the rivers’ soils and clays, and turns the waterway corrosive. One thing leads to another.
Even though these issues, like these artworks, are lumped together, each artist attempts to ascribe some linearity to the whole mess. And while everyone in the show grapples, in their own ways, with their own materials and stories, with what has happened up until this point, no one knows what will happen next. And that’s reason enough for me to keep showing up.
“Environment/s/tallation” at the fourth floor gallery in the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 West 35th. On view until March 3.