Recent studies show a strong correlation between air pollution levels and COVID-19 deaths, indicating that long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a toxin produced by diesel vehicles, may play a key role in determining the fatality of the disease. And while the damage we’ve inflicted on the environment may play an important factor in the deadliness of this disease, the emergence of COVID-19 has also forced our hand in pausing further harm. As humans around the world take refuge in their homes; as the wheels of capitalism churn a little more slowly, our assumed status as authoritarian over the natural world is momentarily suspended, allowing the non-human life around us to begin the process of recovery. Decreasing our movement has caused a massive drop in greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps the largest annual decrease ever recorded. Meanwhile, animal life is reclaiming space with less tourists, cargo ships, and general human disruptions.
If this pause and recovery is proof of the violence that capitalism inflicts on our environment, what happens, then, when we reimagine our relationship to the natural world in ways that are not dictated by the need to produce and consume? This year’s graduating Masters of Fine Arts cohort asks this question by blurring the line separating the human psyche from the natural environment, embodying earth cycles, mapping new terrain out of human emotion, and breathing life into that which has been discarded as waste by existing systems.
Margot Becker and Maxine Schoefer-Wulf utilize the patterns of nature to track the passage of time and identify their place within it. For Becker, this manifests in the repetitive motions of weaving textiles, an ancient act and marker of time most evident in her piece 10 Month Weave (October 2018 – September 2019). Representing ten months’ worth of labor output, the 83” long handwoven linen masquerades as an abstracted landscape while subtly pointing to the interrelation between time, labor, and value in the textile industry. In works such as 535 Tide Cycles (December 26, 1986 to September 28, 1987) (2020), Schoefer-Wulf utilizes repetition as a way of identifying her bodily presence within space.Driven by a narrative of her mother swimming at Ocean Beach in San Francisco the day before her birth, Schoefer-Wulf charts the 9 months her mother carried her during pregnancy by combining water from Ocean Beach with watercolors, mimicking the blues and greys of the ocean on individual frames of 16-millimeter film. The result is a 9 minute 9 second meditative collage in motion, tracing the movement of the horizon and tides over time.
Alejandro Elias Perea works with raw, unglazed clay to build organic forms that serve as tools in his exploration of borderlands and lost ancestral timelines. With tubular structures reminiscent of underwater coral arranged and bound in vessels that could be from an archeological dig, works such as Untitled (2019) conjure a reimagining of the dying Great Barrier Reef — one in which the ghost of the reef grows from the lost narratives we seek to recuperate.
Hannah Waiters and Narges Poursadeqi memorialize the discarded remnants of society by collecting objects and memories left behind by others. Poursadeqi gathers footage of histories and people in order to preserve that which might otherwise be forgotten. Using the traditional form of an Iranian Shahre Farang, or peep box, Poursadeqi builds the understated exterior of Machine 855 (2019), which promises, as you kneel to peer into one of its three portals, that it is, “not just a machine to entertain you. It’s a trap, it will record your memory and pay it back to you over and over again.” Playing within Machine 855 is a mesmerizing loop of video fragments. Glimpses of pop culture, military parades, war, and icy blue television static become intimate memories when preserved by Poursadeqi’s contraption. Similarly, Waiters uses objects imbued with personal history to reimagine collective narratives. In Washington Park 850 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame CA 94010 (2019),Waiters excavates the ground from her childhood playground and displays it on pedestals, physically and metaphorically purging the earth in a powerful gesture of preservation and perseverance. Paired with her family’s swing set that serves as an archway for a regal, antique rocking chair, Waiters’s assemblage suggests that unharnessed potential can be grown from objects and places left behind, much like the moss sweated into her swing set.
Jaymerson Payton incorporates discarded trash into large-scale, multimedia works that function in the tradition of abstract expressionism. In towering pieces such as Light Years Beyond (2019),the artist collects remnants of clutter―a screw, a rubber-band―and inserts these humble objects into epic conversations of human existence using the language of abstraction. Integrating elements such as barbed wire and aluminum foil, Payton creates works that straddle the line of painting and sculpture. The crumpled paper and canvases on which his compositions are formed serve as a reminder of the ephemerality of not only these artworks, but our own bodies―that someday we, too, will deteriorate and return to the ground.
The interwoven relationship between the interpersonal and natural environment is reimagined as uncharted geographies in the work of Katie Smart and Lucien Dante Lazar. By tracing her inner geography, Smart creates terrains that welcome those seeking refuge from society. Works such as Queer Gravities (2019) allow the viewer to pause in the crevasses carved out by Smart’s airily layered brush strokes or follow one of her delicately meandering horizon lines .Offering an alternative to the realistically depicted, awe-inspired landscapes of art history, Smart’s fluid landscapes offer a warm and soft touch to those who seek it. Similarly, Lucien Dante Lazar maps the psyche, using the spiritual philosophies of Austrian esoteric Rudolf Steiner as a compass in developing his multifaceted Passages (2019 – present). These projects, represented here by Singing Through Joan of Arc (2019), imbue art objects with spiritual heft, using natural materials as wayfinding symbols that culminate in installations that blur the line between artistic and spiritual practice. Merging Lazar’s musical, artistic, philosophical and spiritual influences, the Passages seek to guide those who encounter them on an interpersonal journey of metamorphosis and perhaps, transcendence.
As this group of artists celebrate the completion of their Masters of Fine Arts, we find ourselves in the midst of a momentous pause―one that encourages resetting and re-envisaging our futures together as artistic communities, as social actors, as human beings living within this ecosystem. For so many of us, the future that lies beyond this pause is murky and unknown, inciting as much apprehension as it conjures new possibilities. And as we move forward into the unknown together, we follow the lead of those who have been preparing for this moment in one way or another―those, like these artists, who are reimagining our relationships to the earth and one another in ways that do not exist yet, but could very well come to be.