Of Earth: Image and Clay featuring the works of John Douglas and Joan Watson will be on view from July 19 to August 25 at GreenTARA Space in North Hero, VT, with an opening reception Friday July 26 from 5-8pm. Casting a look into the past, present, and future of our relationship with our environment Of Earth: Image and Clay ponders this moment in time, and the uncertainty of our industrialized world. To counter the anxieties of this reality, the exhibit calls upon us to inquire into the complexities of modernity and to promote a deeper understanding of our relationship to the environment.
Today the Earth’s resources are being used to increase the comfort, pleasure, and productivity of humankind. The global-warming reality conjured in John Douglas’ Auto-Warming Series cautions against the consequences of this relationship. His prints are a fascinating display of expanding skylines, oil platforms, and flooding waters. This is an environment that has been completely spent. The recurring imagery of row upon row of submerged cars refers specifically to the auto industry. Owning a vehicle has now become an extension of the self due to the necessity perpetuated by the demands of our consumer/commuter culture. This industry is most American because the automobile has always been our symbol of freedom. It is uncomfortable to imagine a reality without this liberty, but these images ask us to contemplate the cost of this privilege.
The method that Douglas uses to create his Auto-Warming prints reveals the extent of which technology is capable of fabricating reality. Just as a painter uses a brush to create surfaces and blend colors, Douglas maps out his futuristic reality with a mouse and keyboard, using Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) to form his composition. All aspects of the creative process are under complete control, thoroughly manipulated, and strikingly absent of human touch. The effect is so convincing it is hard to believe that Douglas’ computer generated prints are not actual photographs of real places. In addition to achieving a hyper realistic visual effect, working with CGI shows us the seemingly limitless possibilities of rendering through programming. The capability of constructing a proxy for the environment seems like an impossible outcome, but in the future depicted by Douglas’ imagination we see how close to that reality we really are.
As the Auto-Warming Series projects the viewer into a future of consequence, Douglas also presents photographs that reference a reassuring vision. A small rocky island in the middle of Lake Champlain defiantly faces the Auto-Warming prints. This island is a natural rock formation that Vermont’s indigenous Abenaki personify as Ojihozo, a being who was formed from the dust sprinkled over the Earth by their creator. In Ojihozo’s struggle to gather his newly created self, he grasped the land for support, pushing against the Earth with such force that up sprang the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks. Using these mountains as support, Ojihozo lifted himself from the Earth, leaving behind a great indentation that filled with water, forming Bitawbagok, commonly known today as Lake Champlain. Ojihozo returned to the middle of the lake and sat down to become one with Earth again, turning to stone in his final resting place.
At the heart of the tale of Ojihozo is a reverence for nature interwoven with the human experience. To identify more closely with Earth, the Abenaki align themselves with its formation, as the two are one and the same. To the Abenaki, Ojihozo is a valuable island because it personifies their creation story and serves as a reminder that humankind is part of Earth, and only possible because of Earth. The Abenaki perspective contrasts with the more prevailing view that nature exists as a resource, is coveted as a raw material, and valued only for its transformation into a usable substance. The only way to counter the harsh inevitability of an Auto-Warming future is to believe in the value of the Earth beyond the standards of industry and economic gain.
Adding strength to this standpoint are Joan Watson’s Rock Formations. Occupying the same space as the viewer, the rock sculptures offer a grounding presence in their familiar form. They assume the role of companions, each with their individual character, to cultivate a sense of connection. In the setting of the gallery, Watson’s sculptures demonstrate the potential for a relationship based on the mutual benefit of simply existing together. The versatility of clay allows it to be transformed into almost anything, yet Watson has chosen rocks as her subject; a simple element elevated as art to be revered and appreciated.
Clay is one of the oldest materials of creation, dating back roughly 20,000 years. It is one of the earliest mediums used to create functional objects, which in turn provided surfaces for creative expression and communication. Sculpting with clay is one of the earliest steps in the evolution of technology, however at some point the sense of partnership between the creator and the medium was lost. Responding to the human hand, clay cultivates an intimate relationship; volume must be built from the core, working from the inside out. The artist’s intuitive response is achieved by feeling the material and understanding its properties, guiding the clay to its final form.
The hierarchy of sculptural art versus functional art affirms the message that value does not have to be determined by usefulness. There is a dichotomy of functional art versus sculptural art. As a tool, functional art serves a greater purpose for its owner, however the standards of art dictate that once something is able to be used, it’s meaning is diminished at the sake of the service it provides. A sculpture, appreciated solely as art, increases its value both conceptually and monetarily. This notion of hierarchy is important, yet hardly considered when it comes to Earth. If we can elevate the value of the environment above that of a commodity it will regain the level of importance it deserves. After all, it is the original masterpiece and is therefor priceless.
This change in perspective is essential to preserve the Earth’s ability to sustain human existence. Douglas’ Auto-Warming Series anticipates a future that is over industrialized, resulting from the will to command and maintain complete control of the environment for national interests and personal economic gain. But the sense of urgency expressed in his prints is not without hope when juxtaposed with the Ojihozo Series and Watson’s Rock Formations. The possibility of a relationship based on reverence and respect is the first step towards changing course. Human kind exists in alliance with the Earth, not despite it, and acknowledging this relationship is where the shift towards a healthier planet begins. Of Earth: Image and Clay inspires a conscientious look at our values, a reassessment of our material instincts, and a re-acknowledgment of our sense of creation.