Inspiration: Earth Now
I recently had the pleasure to view Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. The exhibit compiles images of humans’ effect on and interactions with the Earth—from rooftop community gardens to blast holes on a Nevada weapons test site.
So many forms of contemporary art intimidate the audience—“What does that mouse hole cut in the wall mean?” [Here, I’m thinking of Juan Muñoz’s Waiting for Jerry (1991).] The audience doesn’t understand the piece; therefore, they don’t engage with it.
As an art form, photography can transcend this dynamic: Photography is approachable, in part thanks to its perception as a documentary art form. Of course, it’s hardly so simple. By choosing which image to capture, and by framing each image with light, composition, color, and texture, the artist is creating meaning. Although the curators have taken care inEarth Now to avoid a particular political or social view, it’s impossible to avoid the activist nature of the images in Earth Now.
These images don’t just touch you on an intellectual level (as much contemporary art does); they hit you in the gut. They callfor action—the type of action remains up to the individual.
Take, for example, Carlan Tapp’s series Question of Power, which documents the impact of strip mining and pollution on Navajo tradition, culture, and people in Burnham, New Mexico. How can you not experience a visceral reaction when you see Jim Mason, a Navajo medicine man, standing next to his hogan that has been split in two by vibrations from strip mining?
There’s incredible beauty in these images, too. Here, the aesthetic beauty of color and composition draw us in to engage us. There is incredible grace, for example, in the drape of a tattered tarp off an Amco fuel station sign in Brook Reynolds’ image series Light, Sweet, Crude. There is abstract handsomeness to the slick oil bubbles in Sonja Thompson’s engrossing piece Petroleum. And there is a twisted, otherworldly fascination to Beth Lilly’s series Monster, which captures trees in Atlanta that have been trimmed into grotesque forms to avoid interfering with power lines.
With these, as will all the works in Earth Now, I was engaged to answer this activist call. Perhaps the quote by photography historian Beaumont Newhall that begins the exhibit best captures my reaction: “There cannot be a man of any sensitivity today who is not shocked, bothered, and distressed by every issue of the newspaper….These are days when eloquent statements are needed.” And so, I shall aspire to this eloquence. I hope we all will.
The exhibit is on display through October 9, 2011.