Artist Profile – Meridel Rubenstein
Small of stature and big on ideas, lively, talkative. and more than a little impishly intellectual, Meridel Rubenstein has for four decades successfully pushed the boundaries of post-modernism in photography and installation through original photo-processes, and a socially active, post-feminist (dare we say, humanist) figurative engagement with environmental issues. Or as the artist succinctly puts it when asked about the germination of her diverse bodies of work, “There are three things that have to be present for me to start a project-the body, war. and nature.” Her eyes darken; her expression becomes serious. “History is always really important. When everything I’m thinking about at the time comes together in one story, that’s when I know I have to do it. “
Born in Detroit in 1948, and spending summers at the family farm in Vermont. Rubenstein describes herself as “always city/country conflicted.” She majored in film “and protesting Vietnam” at Sarah Lawrence. In the late 1960s, she worked with a left-wing, agit-prop film collective in Vermont, along with members of New York Newsreel. Just as her own experimental filmmaking process led to a “film of stills,” she had the good fortune to study at MIT with photographer Minor White. “He was the quintessential modernist, “she recalls. “He taught me purity and sequence.” In 1977. she completed her MFA in photography at the University of New Mexico where she worked with surrealist Van Deren Coke. He introduced her to a far more experimental approach. “So I have both sides, you see. A part of me as an artist that is almost 19th century, and another part that is much more open conceptually.”
Her technique developed over many years of making large-scale palladium prints of people and place, sometimes stamped with text and mounted on steel, or presented in even more novel ways-printed on glass, afloat on a boat, etc.-while her content took root in her concern for universal human and environmental rights. Similar concerns drive the work of Ai Weiwei, Rirkrit liravanija, Francis Alys, Christian Boltanski, Anselm Kiefer, and Mel Chin, who are properly her peers. Her early 1990s masterpiece, Oppenheimer’s Chair, a stunning glass house and video meditation on how hot it might get to sit in the driver’s seat of the Manhattan Project for all eternity, is being considered for the permanent collection of the Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment this year. This comes 20 years after SITE Santa Fe commissioned it for their first biennial, which opened by chance exactly on the 50th anniversary of the first Trinity test-the small coincidence that set the piece in motion.
Today Rubenstein divides her time between Santa Fe and teaching at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. This year she has two solo shows-in Santa Fe this spring at David Richard Gallery, and in the fall at her longtime San Francisco venue, Brian Gross Fine Art. And she’s taking another trip to Iraq, the epicenter of civilization, as part of her latest boundary-blending art experiment. “Eden Turned on its Side,” the title of her new trilogy, denotes a conceptual, photo and multi-media based project. The three parts are Photosynthesis-“a straightforward representation of the carbon cycle” focused on beautifully shot and altered images of leaves and trees-The Volcano Cycle-mixed-media light magic performed with imagery from the Pacific Ring of fire, raising the possibility that nature’s destructive forces are also renewing-and Eden in Iraq. This ambitious final segment encompasses Rubenstein’s directorship of a collaborative architectural, art garden project in the Mesopotamian marshes with Nature Iraq, an NGO dedicated to water remediation. The centerpiece is an elaborate. elegantly designed wastewater garden on the ancient marsh site in southern Iraq that many consider to be the Biblical Eden. The landscape architectural forms. the shapes. colors and volumes. are aesthetically derived from a post-modern mix of the eons of Mesopotamian mythologies and cultures that have flourished and foundered in the region.
The artwork exists primarily as a conceptual set of connections between people and places depicted in haunting landscapes, unique multimedia works, and symbol rich landscape architecture. In Rubenstein’s work, the overarching focus remains on the human heart, and human rights in relationship to land, and to the natural environment. She sums it up nicely: “After millennia of destruction, can Eden be restored? In the largest sense. that’s really the question I want this work to ask.”
Fine Art Exhibition of Work from the 1960s Opens in New York
The cross-fertilization of ideas and inspiration between art and design continues apace. Exhibit A: “The Responding Eye: ’60s Now,” one of the most intriguing fine art exhibitions to hit Manhattan in recent months, which is currently on view at the Greenwich Village decorative arts gallery Maison Gerard.
The show celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1965 exhibition “The Responsive Eye,” which presented the work of nearly 100 international artists engaged in Op Art, Geometric Abstraction, Hard-Edge Painting, and other forms of expression that turned away from the raw emotion of an earlier generation of gestural abstract painters.
The artists represented in the exhibit may not be as familiar as, say, Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock, but they nevertheless exerted a profound influence on the Minimalism and Conceptual movements that were beginning to coalesce in the 1960s and early ’70s. For art aficionados who may not happen to possess a Ph.D. in 20th-century painting, this show offers a concise yet compelling introduction to the work of Leon Berkowitz, Francis Hewitt, Beatrice Mandelman, Paul Reed, and others.
The good news for collectors is that, unlike the astronomical sums that canvases by Rothko, Pollock, and their peers typically fetch, the prices for the works on view at Maison Gerard are decidedly more accessible. In any case, they’re well worth seeing.
Artwork curated by David Richard Gallery through May 27, Maison Gerard, 43 & 53 East 10th Street, New York; maisongerard.com
Beloved D.C. Artist Tom Green and his Surrealistic, Graphic Vocabulary
Tom Green took cues from consumerism, politics, and the everyday around him to build Boschean, graphic landscapes of cavorting geometry. Working within his own surrealistic visual language—part front-facing hieroglyphics, part freehand cartooning—Green brought a lighthearted approach to an advanced understanding of color, composition, and the realities of contemporary situations.
This spring, David Richard Gallery in Santa Fe debuts “Tom Green – Mapping the Human Condition (family, nature, war, authority, memory, compassion).” The exhibition features a selection from Green’s last series of work made before his death from ALS in 2012, as well as paintings and works on paper from throughout his career.
Considered to be one of the most prominent Washington D.C. artists of the last century, Green led art in the city away from the prevalent trend of painters in the Washington Color School (such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland), while working for 35 years as an instructor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. He encouraged his students to look inward towards a personal vocabulary of form, a commandment he personified. One of his most defining characteristics to those who knew him was his ever-present black sketchbook in which he would constantly draw, reacting to the world around him.
The works on view at David Richard Gallery show the focused attention of an artist who had worked to solidify his unique methodology. In various works on paper and canvas, we see pop, narrative tableaus depicting an spirit of joy, as well as a concern for the heavier, threatening aspects of modern existence. Hard edged color and graphic forms give an ominous tone to Two Conditions (1983), which seems to threaten two equally violent and undesirable scenarios. Memory (1994) has a contemplative inwardness in its monochrome palette and composition. In stark contrast, Puppet (1988) is a buoyant and busy work on paper that pushes onward and upward through turmoil. In Gadget (1987), a bright, fun object stands front-and-center, resembling both an indefinable machine and a futuristic, Inca-inspired deity.
Considering the productive nature of the artist’s practice and his constant response to events around him, it is no surprise that these works, like human characters, cycle through emotional up- and downswings. Filtering the world around him into his own pictorial space throughout an incredibly prolific career, Green’s works are useful markers in illustrating the rapid shifts of the world around him as it entered a new and chaotic century.
What You See Is What You Think You See?
What You See Is What You Think You See?
In 1965, the Museum of Modern Art open The Responsive Eye, an exhibition of what most people refer to as op art.
The works abandoned all association with nature, such as a horizontal line that could suggest a landscape, as well as the gestural painterly-ness of the abstract expressionists. The new work brought scientific and psychological studies of perception into the world of art. Rather than “telling” the brain what the eye is seeing, it allows the eye to see what it sees, and the brain to interpret what is there. The exhibition’s curator, William Seitz, said the title of the exhibition was chosen “to indicate an activity, not the kind of art.”
He asked, “Can such works, that refer to nothing outside themselves, replace with psychic effectiveness the content that has been abandoned? What are the potentialities of a visual art capable of affecting perception so physically and directly? Can an advanced understanding and application of functional images open a new path from retinal excitation to emotions and ideas?”
In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the exhibition, David Richard Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is mounting a series of exhibitions curated by David Eichholtz and Peter Frank. The first was Post-Op: ‘The Responsive Eye’ Fifty Years After, February 24 through April 11. The second, Op Infinitum: ‘The Responsive Eye’ Fifty Years After, opens May 29 and continues through July 6. Post-Op explored the “roster” of artists from the MoMA exhibition and examined the artists’ work “during and after the op art ‘craze’ of the mid-1960s.”
Op Infinitum further explores artist from The Response Eye, as well as work from the ’60s by other artists working in the same vein but not included in the exhibition. Subsequent exhibitions in the David Richard Gallery series will “feature artwork by contemporary artists who continue to push art into the perceptual realm with new materials and technologies that create visual sensations, immersive experiences and view-active engagement,” as well as later-career and contemporary work by artists from The Responsive Eye. The final installment of this series will turn to the international artists from Europe and Latin America who were an important part of the MoMA exhibition.
In his essay for the first of the exhibitions, art historian and curator Frank observes the artists associated with op art remained true to the principles that inspired them 50 years ago.
“Their sensibilities,” he writes, “oriented toward systematic investigation and the evolution of coherent form, maintain throughout their careers whether or not their latest practice diverged from op art or even from geometric abstraction in general. Some went back to the exploration of perceptual stimulation after working in others (if related) styles…And succeeding generations of artists – notably but not exclusively painters, and notably but not exclusively Americans – have referred to op mannerisms or even return to op practices, interested all over again in what can be done to stimulate the eye beyond the expected, beyond the quotidian, beyond the prosaic. Op art stays stubbornly fresh, as long as the human eye stays gullible and enchantable.”
I began my own museum career toward the end of the op art “craze” and was amazed, walking through Post-Op, at how fresh the paintings and constructions still are. Fifty years later, science may know a little more about how the sensations occur, but their visceral impact is still surprising.
Julian Stanczak (born 1928) was training to be a musician in Poland when he lost the use of his right arm in a Siberian labor camp during World War II. He learned to paint left-handed and studied with Josef Albers at Yale. His first exhibition in New York was Julian Stanczak Optical Paintings, held at Martha Jackson Gallery the year before The Responsive Eye at MoMA. The shifting, transparent forms, planes and colors of Tactile See-Through, 1974, continue to engage in amaze.
Oli Sihvonen (1921 -1991) also studied under Albers, but at Black Mountain College. He came to Taos, New Mexico, in the late 1940s with a group of Black Mountain students and returned later as a full-time resident for more than a decade. Untitled (230), 1968, has areas of pure color that are affected by the colors around them. In his essay for The Responsive Eye, Seitz wrote about black-and-white works. “Almost everything that can be stated generally about optical painting in color is also true a black and white, and the opposite is also the case. The primary aim from which both result is beauty of form, and tasteful relationships, nor equilibrium in the old sense but the activation of vision. And color is unnecessary for perceptual ambiguity, variability and movement. “Ward Jackson’s (1928 2004) Parallel Point #1 illustrates his point as we “see” movement and changes in tone where there are none.
Frank quotes Frank Stella, who said, “What you see is what you see.” Frank then notes that op artists would say, “What you see is what you think you see.
Santa Fe’s Art Now: A Mix of Show and Sell
Santa Fe’s Art Now: A Mix of Show and Sell
No gallery keeps the spirit of contemporary art alive in Santa Fe better than David Richard, now located in the Railyard District. The gallery has a unique identity in the local scene, specializing in work from the 1960s through the 1980s. You see big names there, from a living and not-long-dead set broad enough to include Willem De Kooning, Francis Celentano and Judy Chicago.
544 S. Guadalupe St., Santa Fe, 505-983-9555, davidrichardgallery.com
Two artists but one theme: war
Washington painter Phyllis Plattner’s semi-classical pictures depict bombings, shootings and decapitations. Argentine-bred glass artist Silvia Levenson’s wall sculptures simulate baby clothes in bright, nursery school hues. Yet both women’s work carries the same theme: war.
Two floors apart at the American University Museum, their art ponders historical violence in ways that are deliberate yet immediate. Although their methods and inspirations are quite different, Plattner’s “Gods of War!” and Levenson’s “Identidad” are equally vivid and personal.
Levenson was not only in Argentina in 1976, but also pregnant when people were “disappeared” and their babies awarded to government loyalists. Plattner was visiting Mexico’s Chiapas state in 1994 when Mayan rebels known as Zapatistas began a revolt against the national government. She began collecting locally made dolls of masked Zapatista fighters, but it wasn’t until five years later, when she was living in Florence, that the dolls entered her work.
Plattner began reimagining Italian masterpieces with the dolls in place of religious and mythological figures. Some of those works are included in this exhibition, but the painter didn’t fully engage her subject until she began emulating Renaissance altar pieces that group multiple scriptural scenes in gold-framed symmetrical arrangements.
Within this ornate format, Plattner incorporated notable pictures by such bloody-minded maestros as Caravaggio. But while Plattner’s compositions are derived from 14th- to 17th- century Italy, she doesn’t quote only from that time and place. She pairs renderings of biblical murder and martyrdom with Goya’s well-known depiction of a Napoleonic-era firing squad and Picasso’s even more famed “Guernica.” Plattner also roves beyond Europe, incorporating Asian and Meso-American images of battle and warriors. All are rendered in close approximations of their original styles, whether Japanese woodblock prints or Picasso’s cubism.
Phyllis Plattner’s “Chronicle of War, Faces.” (Phyllis Plattner)
It may be the black-and-white “Guernica,” details of which feature in several of the multi-part paintings, that led Plattner to incorporate photographs. She uses oil paints and brushes to replicate iconic snapshots from World War II, the Vietnam conflict and more recent cataclysms. Separated by gold-leaf borders are the entrance to Auschwitz, the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack, the World Trade Center towers ablaze, an abused prisoner at Abu Ghraib and African child soldiers.
Many of these images are instantly recognizable, yet Plattner doesn’t allow them to overpower her overall compositions. Arranged into suites, the paintings pair infamies across eras, matching romanticized legend to stark photojournalism. “Chronicles of War/Heads and Hands” is a fugue of horrific wounds and deaths. In “Chronicles of War/Moments,” a dying St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows, looks away from the corpse of a lynched African American man.
One interesting effect of such juxtapositions is to make visceral the suffering that Christian art traditionally presents as spiritual. Pious viewers may object, but in Plattner’s paintings no kinds of torture and killing appear more exalted than others.
To make these multifaceted works, the artist mastered many styles and techniques, including the woodworking necessary for the elaborate frames. Such complex pieces can’t be made quickly, so the evolution of Plattner’s style — and outlook — is inevitably slow. But it seems that her more recent paintings seek a balance between war and peace. Although they’re still clustered with images of killing and mourning, some panels are devoted to birds, cherubs or serene skies. The news from the battlefield remains dreadful, but there are other things to behold.
From a certain angle, Levenson’s “Identidad” seems more cheerful than Plattner’s work. More than 100 colored-glass bibs, bloomers and pairs of socks line a long, white wall, evoking the love elicited and hope inspired by the very young. On the other side of the gallery, however, several dozen glass knives dangle over a photo of two young girls — the artist and her sister, standing in for both a later generation and an entire nation.
The ominous blades are the show’s only visual representation of violence. Two videos explain the fates of the disappeared and the children stolen from their families, as well as the campaign of the Grandmothers of the Plaza be Mayo. (They’ve helped identify 116 of some 500 babies born while their mothers were imprisoned between 1976 and 1983.) Levenson’s work is less outraged than pensive, musing on the loss of such children as the girl in “She Flew Away,” which consists of just a swing and a pair of shoes, both made of glass.
That material is suitably ambiguous: solid but translucent, heavy yet fragile. Levenson’s glass garments catch the light in a lively way, yet are stiff and unmoving, and without bodies to animate them. As clothing for actual children, of course, kiln-cast socks and pants are useless. But as symbols for missing persons, they are poignantly both present and absent.
State of the Arts: Everything the traffic will allow
If, like me, you happened to see USA Today’s Readers’ Choice online contest for travel that invited vistors to vote on the nation’s best art districts, you may have been surprised to see Santa Fe’s Railyard on the list as a contender. It isn’t that the area doesn’t merit visiting. Many would say, to the contrary, that there are always things worth checking out there. Overall, though, it isn’t a very happening scene. Farmers Market and Friday-night gallery openings aside, something is missing from the Railyard this time of year, and that something is people. Sure, it’s off-season. Sure, there’s more going on during the summer months. But even in the summer, foot traffic is so sparse that the area gets vibrant only when something major is happening at one of the bigger venues: at SITE Santa Fe, perhaps, or El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe. Unlike its neighbor Warehouse 21, El Museo has never had much of an identity of its own — even though, as host to the annual Currents festival, which showcases new-media artists each June, it’s where the season launches. The galleries are still locked in a perpetual shuffle, moving from this location to that — and for many of them there’s a dearth of shows from January through May, a pretty good chunk of the year. To be fair, a few Railyard galleries continue to do shows year-round, notably David Richard Gallery, which usually opens more than one exhibit on a near-monthly basis. Even SITE, a venue for more long-term, large-scale installation shows and biennials, provides something to see between major exhibits with SITElab, a small exhibition space in the lobby with no admission charge.
I’m not one to lament the recent closing of Flying Star Café on Market Street; I won’t miss the inflated prices and dirty glasses and silverware. But the internet hot spot did have its fans. For a brief moment, I thought its closing was a sign of the times and wouldn’t have been surprised if other venues followed suit. But the Railyard is no ghost town. Other restaurants and pubs do a steady business, even if traffic to the galleries is stagnant. Rents tend to get higher rather than lower, with galleries unable to make the cut closing up shop or moving. That seems to be what happened to several downtown and Canyon Road galleries in an exodus that saw Evoke Contemporary, LewAllen Galleries, Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, and David Richard Gallery all head to the Railyard. Some see it as a trend toward establishing a more cutting-edge, contemporary flavor to the area — a precedent set by SITE Santa Fe — but those moves followed in the wake of several Railyard galleries (that were no less contemporary) shutting down: Box Gallery, Gebert Contemporary (which still has a Canyon Road location), and Evo Gallery among them. TAI Gallery managed to hang on by merging with former Delgado Street art venue Eight Modern to become TAI Modern. The city has invested in the Railyard, sprucing it up over the years, and, while the crowds aren’t flocking there yet, it seems on the cusp of taking on a new life: There are signs of hope in the Railyard.
Violet Crown Cinema’s planned opening of its 11-screen theater and restaurant/bar complex at the start of May will bring competition for Santa Fe’s other movie theaters and will probably attract a lot of people, but its development has been a mixed blessing. Camino de la Familia, the theater’s location, is a construction zone that has negatively affected foot and auto traffic to the local venues. However, the cinema could revitalize the area when it opens. “The construction has been wearing, but we are really looking forward to this whole side of the tracks being completed,” said Avra Leodas, director of Santa Fe Clay, a resource center, studio, and exhibition space for ceramists on Camino de la Familia. “We’ve waited a long, long time. We can’t wait for the new road that’s going to be between what was Flying Star and the north side of the cinema. There’s a walkway between the cinema building and Santa Fe Clay that’s about to be completed.”
It’s just a matter of time before access to Camino de la Familia is no longer an issue. “The road will open at the end of this month,” said Gordon Lawrie, the owner of @508, a new pop-up space on Camino de la Familia and directly behind REI. “Then you’ll have a high-traffic area.” In the meantime, limited access is available from Manhattan Avenue. Lawrie, who also owns Eidos Contemporary Jewelry in the Sanbusco Center, negotiated a lease on the old adobe, which was extensively renovated to function as a live-in work and exhibit space available for short- or long-term rental. “It was almost a derelict property,” he said of @508. “It reflected on this whole area back here. It looked like a dump.” The formerly dilapidated building now has a fully furnished living room, kitchen, and bedroom as well as its own gallery. The new studio/gallery of Native artists Frank Buffalo Hyde and Courtney M. Leonard is adjacent to the property and shares its 508 street number.
@508 is poised to be a boon to artists without current gallery representation. Galleries typically take 50 percent or more when their artists’ works sell; @508 gives many more artists the opportunity to create and show their work by having them pay rent and cleaning costs but keep the money they make. If an artist wants to do something short-term, like a pop-up show, they can rent the space for, say, two days, hanging their pieces on one day and showing them on the next. “If you want to get into a gallery, invite the gallery over and show them your work — not in a studio setting, but on real walls,” Maria Levy, @508’s manager, said. The space is available for craftspeople as well. “A craftsperson has a cycle where they make work and have to be in the studio,” Lawrie said. “It’s nice if you can have a continuity, and in six weeks produce a body of work. But then — what do you do with it?” Artists who live out of state or overseas can arrange for longer rentals and, because of @508’s brand-new amenities, use it also for living quarters for the duration of their agreement. “You take it out of the art context. Let’s say you’re a chef, and you want to have a private dinner. You can prepare it here, serve it here, and charge whatever you charge,” Levy said. Artists can have their own private suite during the market season and host a reception, inviting their collectors.
One of the reasons local artists have been heading to the Siler Road area is to take advantage of its cheaper rents for live-in work studios. That isn’t an option in the Railyard. The average artist, or even the average small business owner, may not be able to afford to pay $20,000 in rent per year — the cost, according to Lawrie, for space in the area. (I suspect the owners of the REI building are asking even more.) A walk up Market Street is like being on a boulevard not of broken, but empty dreams: Its three large spaces in the REI complex are devoid of occupants. I doubt it’s for lack of interest. Business spaces along Market Street have sat empty for years in a district that gets national attention, which suggests that something fishy is going on. “The premises are empty for a very good reason,” Lawrie said, hinting at developer incompetence. Lawrie convinced the owners of the Sanbusco Center to open its back entrance, providing better flow to Camino de la Familia.
The needed influx of visitors to the Railyard may come this spring with the opening of the Violet Crown (just expect to pay for parking). In the meantime, it couldn’t hurt to cast your ballot for the district on USA Today’s website (www.10best.com/awards/travel/best-art-district/), where the voting continues through noon on March 2.
Meridel Rubenstein: Eden Turned On Its Side: Selections from Photosynthesis
EDEN TURNED ON ITS SIDE IS A NINE-YEAR ENDEAVOR IN THREE PARTS:
Photosynthesis, The Volcano Cycle, and Eden in Iraq. A selection from the first series (started in 2007) and two volcano images are hanging in a small side room of David Richard Gallery. The expected completion of Eden in Iraq is 2016. Meridel Rubenstein is a renowned photographer and environmentalist asking through this timely series, “Can Eden be restored?”
Rubenstein (along with plenty of others) maintains the Judeo-Christian ideal of Eden that the Earth was at one time perfect. First there was light, which allowed for photosynthesis, vegetation, and life. A symbiosis between man and his lair was born that we really still depend on today despite millennia of innovation, industrialization, and destruction. To capture this Edenic ideal that informs Photosynthesis, Rubenstein photographed people and vegetation from New Mexico, Vermont, and Singapore.
Perhaps the most literal selection is a grid of nine photographs, each with a single leaf from a different tree in a different stage of photosynthesis. These specimens transcend their weary decay and, magnified, their decomposition becomes filigree and the green, gold, yellow, and orange become idyllic displays of the intelligence of nature. They float in darkness on black grounds as if to indicate the pending absence of light. Like Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstracted plants, Photosynthesis Leaf Grid decontextualizes the object in reconsideration.
In digital postproduction, Rubenstein repeatedly uses a large central circle suspended amid puffy white clouds that acts like a thought bubble, a magnifying glass, and a globe all at once. Its contents vary, but its most basic image, seen in Gaia Cloud and Winter Cloud, is a simple circle whose contents are inverted using Photoshop. Greek mythology identifies Gaia as one of the primordial deities and more succinctly as the personification of earth or even Mother Earth. Gaia Cloud conjoins heaven and earth while probing the existence of heaven on earth.
The floating mandala in Fall Seasonal illuminates an autumn tree—ancient and wise in its enormity and healthy in its idyllic brilliance. It may as well be the tree of knowledge where we ate the apple, where our eyes were opened, and from which we thus endured expulsion. Paradise was barred but also preserved. Fall Seasonal suggests this distance and dislocation while referencing another creation story: the Big Bang. A fertile ball floats in a gaseous atmosphere ready to combust. Winter Seasonal is the sibling image, which documents a leafless tree preserving its energy through the cold. In both of these images, the tree is chopped into smaller frames of macro and micro rectangles that, pieced together, offer a multi-perspective composition of paradise, proposing nature’s omniscience.
Rubenstein writes that “wherever people thought there to be Eden, invariably there would have been some sort of environmental conflagration that destroyed it.” The flaming sword barring entrance to the Garden of Eden in Genesis is just one example of this heated destruction that forms section two. The Volcano Cycle concretely focuses on Indonesia’s Ring of Fire and Mount Toba’s eruption over seventy thousand years ago, theorized to have caused a global catastrophe resulting in a bottleneck in human evolution. These images are printed on aluminum panel to evince “deep, geological time full of minerals and melted ore.”
For Eden in Iraq, Rubenstein went to Southern Iraq’s former marshlands, also known as Mesopotamia, which are cited as the hub of civilization if not the original Garden of Eden. In 1991 (following the First Gulf War), Saddam Hussein diverted the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, thereby making the area inhospitable for refuged militiamen as well as for all the other mammals and fish. The previously dense ecosystem was drained, leaving behind a desert. Rubenstein and environmental engineer Mark Nelson want to restore this site of war and destruction to a brimming garden, reinstating Eden to this post-Edenic site.
In this epic trilogy there is no fairytale or apocalyptic beginning and end, but instead a cyclical proposition of birth, destruction, and renewal. Rubenstein seamlessly stitches together our legendary fables with our ephemeral geography and prompts intent reconsideration of our cultural heritage and legacy.
Back to the garden: Eden turned on its side
Pasatiempo – Santa Fe New Mexican
After the Gulf War, the Iraqi government revived a program to divert the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers away from marshlands in Iraq, resulting in the loss of 90 percent of marshland habitat in less than 10 years. The program decimated species, causing the death of thousands of fish and waterfowl, and created a refugee crisis among the Marsh Arabs, traditional tribes and tribal confederations that rely on the wetlands for survival.
It is there, in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, part of western Asia’s Fertile Crescent, that the fabled Garden of Eden of Judeo-Christian heritage is believed to have existed. For photographer and multimedia artist Meridel Rubenstein, Eden became a symbol not of religion but of hope in a time of conflict. In response, she created Eden in Iraq: The Wastewater Art Garden Project, which she hopes to finish by 2016, in time for a photographic exhibition at David Richard Gallery.
Eden in Iraq is the final chapter in a three-part series by the artist, collectively titled Eden Turned on Its Side, that examines the precarious relationship between human beings and the natural world. Selections from the first part of the series, Photosynthesis, are on view at the gallery through August 24. For Rubenstein, a visiting associate professor of art, design, and media at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore, the project had its genesis while she was traveling in Africa and Europe between semesters. “What I was looking for — I just couldn’t articulate it — was how nature could be a healing force,” she told Pasatiempo.
Photosynthesis is a series of composite images of trees and people exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, meant to underscore a threatened symbiotic relationship. This is its premiere in Santa Fe, although Rubenstein maintains a studio here. It was in the midst of working on the Photosynthesis images that Rubenstein got the idea to do Eden in Iraq. “When I was making one of them, I had this thought that it was about Eden, but I don’t have any Western religious training, so I don’t think about Eden. I thought, I wonder where people think Eden was? I told my friend Linda Durham about it, and a week later she said, ‘Turn on the television.’ There was a program about the group Nature Iraq. That’s when the light bulb went on.” Nature Iraq is an NGO committed to restoring, preserving, and protecting Iraq’s natural environments and resources.
The Volcano Cycle, the second series of images created as part of Eden Turned on Its Side, is a consideration of deep time explored photographically. It references creation myths, cycles of life and death, and issues of climate change. The David Richard Gallery plans on exhibiting this particular work sometime next year.
The series developed in response to Rubenstein’s visit to Lake Toba, in Sumatra, where a supervolcano erupted some 74,000 years ago and according to one theory wiped out more than 60 percent of earth’s human population. “It’s an interesting site,” said Rubenstein. “There was a vast number of people, plants, and animals killed. It was called the Weak Garden of Eden,” where life had to begin anew. “This is a section about time,” she said. “Several things have to work together. The first is metaphor. History is a big deal. Metaphor is a big deal. Place, land, nature, culture — all these things have to be there.” The images in The Volcanic Cycle, a few examples of which are included in the current show at David Richard, contain elements of landscape photography taken in Indonesia. They underscore the fragility and tenacity of life in the region, where geothermal activity produces a harsh and unforgiving environment.
Rubenstein plans to return to Iraq in the fall, where she has made several trips to establish a site for Eden in Iraq, and begin preliminary development of a wastewater garden. “I had a team I created to work on this project. We’ve gone three times already, and we’re really in the middle of it. We’ve all along been working with Nature Iraq. The 2014 budget for the country wouldn’t be passed until this last election. Once it was passed, there was a budget being prepared for water projects for the marshes, and I wanted to get the project in that budget. The government for the whole region decided they wanted to fund us. That was so amazing. I dragged in my neighbor, who’s an environmental engineer. It’s Mark Nelson, who’s from Synergia Ranch. That’s the group that did the Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Mark was responsible for the waste system, the closed system of the biosphere, which he inhabited for two years. By the second trip I got university money because of this teaching job. I was able to write a research grant. Mostly they give money to scientists, but because there was this environmental-engineering component, I got [it]. But the money doesn’t pay for us to build. It only covers travel expenses.”
Many of the Marsh Arabs were forced to abandon traditional lifeways when Saddam Hussein’s government drained the marshes, a move intended to root out militiamen taking refuge there after a failed Shia uprising in 1991. The region, once among the world’s largest wetland environments, was effectively turned into a desert. “The Marsh Arabs are ancient, and they’ve been isolated, so they haven’t assimilated with the rest of the region,” said Rubenstein. “They go back seven, eight thousand years to Mesopotamia, to Sumer, to the first cuneiform writing, like the Code of Hammurabi. It was the beginning of our roots. When Saddam was deposed, they started coming back. Because of Nature Iraq, 50 or 60 percent of the region has been re-greened. Some people came back wanting modern houses, which are cinder block, and others have come back and built old adobe houses. But the main architecture is dome-shaped houses with woven reeds. This is traditional.”
The wastewater garden will honor the rich cultural heritage of the region while simultaneously acknowledging its ancient past. There are no immediate plans to develop the garden as a resource for food because the water is not potable. “Right now, as far as we want to get is a wastewater garden with a leach field — an equal amount of land for the garden and a secondary garden where the gray water comes out. Once it’s been cleaned by the plants, it’s much purer than the gray water we know. So for every square meter of wastewater garden, we have a square meter of secondary. You can eat above the leaves from the wastewater and secondary gardens, so you can have dates, pomegranates, things like that. But you don’t eat from the ground.”
Rubenstein sees the project as a chance to create a symbol of hope in a region ravaged by recent conflicts with other nations, including the United States. “Something has changed in me a little over the last 10 years. … I’m making something for somebody else, and that’s the most important thing.”
JUNE WAYNE – RENAISSANCE WOMAN
The name June Wayne is most recognizable in the world of printmaking, but a visitor won’t find just her prints at the Pasadena Museum of California Art’s exhibit “June Wayne: Paintings, Prints, and Tapestries,” running through Aug. 31. As an artist who explored a vast variety of mediums, Wayne was responsible for reviving printmaking in the 1960s and was a notable figure in the Los Angeles feminist art movement in the 1970s.
“She just was so interested in the world and not just in the world of art,” said exhibit co-curator Jay Belloli, a contemporary art curator and a personal friend of Wayne. “She was special as an artist because her range of themes was rather amazing.”
In the 1940s Wayne was in Southern California working on a series of surrealist paintings. Though she had started off as a painter in her career (which took off when she was very young), she had a hard time depicting movement on a flat medium. Jules Langsner, a friend and an art critic, suggested that she try printmaking.
Thus was launched the most acclaimed period of Wayne’s career. “She basically backed into the medium that she is most famous for, which is lithography, but she didn’t set out to be involved in lithography at all,” Belloli said. Wayne worked closely with a printer in California and created the “Kafka Series” (1948-49), which consisted of paintings, prints and drawings inspired by the stories of author Franz Kafka. The “Justice Series” (1950-56) was inspired by Kafka’s “The Trial,” and the “John Donne Series” (1957-58) dealt with the sensual themes of Donne, an English poet.
While creating lithographs, Wayne discovered that US artists did not have the same support system as European artists, because she had a difficult time finding a printer for her Donne series. After expressing her concerns to Mac Lowry of the Ford Foundation, the Tamarind Lithography Workshop was born. There, artists and printers collaborated to create high-quality prints. Wayne ran the workshop for a decade (1960-70), and today the workshop resides in Albuquerque.
However, Wayne didn’t just revolutionize the careers of printmakers; she made great strides for female artists. “She truly was one of the great mothers of the feminist art movement,” said Betty Ann Brown, co-curator, art historian and a friend of Wayne. In 1972, Wayne invited 20 female artists to attend a workshop she called “Business and Professional Problems of Women Artists,” later titled “Joan of Art.” In this workshop she taught women the ins and outs of the art industry and how to approach and handle it.
“I like that she fought for her rights and was not shy about speaking up social ills,” Brown said. “I really deeply appreciate that she understood so many things about gender roles, both for men and women, and how they all intersect and contradict each other in the art world.”
In turn, Wayne had her participants teach the workshop to other women artists, and so forth. “It was a decentralized educational process so women who worked together were doing consciousness raising and role playing,” Brown said.
Wayne’s passion for feminist politics isn’t surprising, considering her upbringing. Her mother Dorothy, a Russian Jewish immigrant, was divorced and raised Wayne with her grandmother. Before Dorothy succumbed to colon cancer, Wayne visited her at her deathbed and that inspired the first lithograph she made at Tamarind: “Dorothy, the Last Day” (1960). The print, which is displayed at the PMCA alongside a short film narrated by Wayne herself, shows Dorothy, whose profile resembles a skull, her frail hands clasping a loved one’s hand. This vulnerable moment for Dorothy was compromised when the image was printed in Time magazine after her death without Wayne’s permission.
“June realized that thank God Dorothy was gone because she would’ve been horrified,” Brown said. “[Dorothy] was a very private person and wouldn’t want to be known by that last image — balding, emaciated and dying.” Wayne decided to make it up to her mother by creating the “Dorothy Series,” a series of lithographs that recounts Dorothy’s life.
Wayne used elements of Dorothy’s life in the prints, such as pictures and Dorothy’s own words from her diaries and letters. In “The Desire to Write” (1977), Dorothy is a young woman, her smartly dressed profile looking up at a series of words describing her father Nathan Kline as a “quiet, inarticulate man.” An image of Nathan eerily looks on in the background of the print. In this lithograph, and in many others, Wayne incorporated image and text, an art form that would not become popular until the 1980s.
While Wayne touched on literary themes and social issues, she was also fascinated with science. The “Burning Helix Series” (1970s) emerged after Wayne read James Watson’s book on the structure of DNA, which he co-discovered along with Francis Crick. Wayne was concerned that she shouldn’t depict the science too closely in her imagery. “She didn’t want to illustrate science,” Brown said. “She wanted to engage its process in art making.” Wayne continued to produce numerous lithographs with printer Ed Hamilton and created more series inspired by celestial imagery, scientific processes and even tsunamis.
Wayne became fascinated with another art medium and transformed many of her scientifically themed prints into large-scale tapestries. “I can’t think of another major artist who basically explored tapestries the way that she did,” Belloli said.
One of her tapestries, “Col Noir” (1972), shows three beaded loops that represent a DNA helix in a blue sky over a rocky mountain pass. “She’d work very closely with the weavers and so the tapestries are very unusual in their detail,” Belloli said.
After exploring different mediums, Wayne went back to paintings, but made them three-dimensional. “She was very interested in the way light played on the surface of the painting,” Belloli said. The “Quake Series” (1990s) was created when Southern California was hit with a series of earthquakes, most notably the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Wayne arranged styrene packing peanuts on a canvas, where the styrene represented the Earth’s rugged surface, and the patterns were painted over in multiple colors.
Wayne died in 2011. Though her main legacy is with lithography, the exhibit at the PMCA is a testament to her involved and progressive career. “She worried about inspiration, not about consistency,” Belloli said. “That’s a pretty remarkable thing for an artist. I look at complete artists’ careers and the ones that you’re fascinated by are the ones that just basically keep growing and keep taking risks, and not all of them do. And I think that was something that was true of her. The art world likes to categorize people — she wasn’t easy to categorize. She could’ve rested on her laurels the rest of her life. She could’ve played it safe. She didn’t. And I think that’s really an important reason to do the show.”
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