Sustainable Attention for Sustainability

Dust Mask 1.0, Vaughn Bell, 2010

Nobody likes an edict in the face. When an audience enters a gallery and feels solicited to, their alacrity tanks. I remember watching Michael Darling jury the Jacob Lawrence Gallery's 2009 School of Art Open (soon to be juried by Eric Elliot). We walked into the back room and we were confronted with a blood-red paint and newspaper collage of a crucified Obama. Needless to say, that particular gem was let go from the exhibition.

The cringe-factor is tricky to navigate; cringe-ful art is off-putting and cringe-less art is often, just plain put away. So what to do with this planet of ours that is dying? How does an artist push that issue without the hustle?

The answer: savoir-faire. No wait... diplomacy. Even better, a wolf in art's clothing. At this last month's art walk, I saw some hard-hitting hippies under a veneer of timidity.

Creatures of Habit (Green Chairs) , Tamara Coder, 2009, mixed media

Invasive Species (Tree and Striped Chair), Tamara Coder, 2009, mixed media

Tamara Coder's series at Foster-White was no bark and all bite. Painted on to home furnishing magazines, her subjects bring unbridled nature into the most cultivated living spaces; ironically composed of plant-products. Her flowers and trees plant themselves onto wooden chairs and tables with fine cotton upholstery and table clothes; and no matter how much audacity these implants display to the viewer, they are no more audacious than a human would seem possessing the same space.

Pocket Biosphere Adoption, Vaughn Bell, 2004 - Ongoing

Pocket Biosphere Adoption, Vaughn Bell, 2004 - Ongoing
Photo Courtesy of Soil Gallery

The relevance between the current show at Soil Gallery and the its own namesake is near laughable. This month at Soil you will find soil, and you can even take it home in your pocket. The ease with which you can adopt one of Vaughn Bell's biospheres was alarming (considering current events). I saw a irresponsible-looking man in a beanie (Editors note: This was meant as sarcasm, men drinking Newcastle and wearing beanies make excellent fathers) sign his adoption papers with one hand while downing a Newcastle with the other. Wasn't it Brain Doherty who argued that an artist no longer controls the intent of their work once it is sold? Imagine the dismay when an artist adopts their work to an alcoholic stranger and then it dies. Perhaps this level of tragedy will appropriately turn heads not only to environmental stewardship but issues of art ownership as well.

Sustainability is on everyone's tongue - but how does a visual artist sustain a viewers attention long enough for a solid message to sink in. I especially appreciate Tamara's delicacy - she doesn't guilt - and so she keeps my attention longer. Vaughn is not as subtle, but making the viewer sign a promise to take care of the art sustains considerable attention. If navigating sensitive, guilt-button issues is a-buzz this month, I'm waiting to see what else grows.

Ficus, Eric Elliot, 2008, oil on canvas

Challenge/Shameless Plug: Can Eric Elliot identify UW artists who possess the sensitivity and the courage to meet a meaningful issue with a delicate approach? The UW School of Art Open runs 2/23 to 3/20 and has a reception February 23, 4-6:30 pm at "the Jake".