WASHINGTON, DC — Much of the rhetoric around environmentalism centers on the fact that, given the rate at which society consumes resources or ignores cataclysmic degradation, the earth will be soon uninhabitable. It is an argument that presupposes that man and nature are two opposing forces pitted against one another, and therefore the solution to this kind of dilemma is to change our behavior or regulate our actions through policy — a decidedly solid and pragmatic approach. That environmental consciousness has the potential to manifest itself elegantly vis-à-vis an art exhibition and cause us to step back and reflect on whether the relationship between man and nature is quite so conflicted might surprise some detractors.
Enter Helen Frederick, a DC-based artist who for the past 25 years has emphasized materiality and a distinctive hand throughout her practice. Known particularly for her work in printmaking and artist books, Frederick points to the possibilities — and limitations — of new media by highlighting its material analogue. Paintings and graphite works are vivid against the rough surface of her handmade paper, a process she has rigorously practiced since the late 1980s.
Acts of Silence, held in the upstairs corridor of the Phillips Collection, contains a few of these pulp paintings that recall Rothko’s blocked color canvases. Unlike the enveloped feeling that Rothko’s massive works induce, however, these smaller paintings, collectively titled Phenomenal Space (2015), are juxtaposed against the video and mixed-media installations that surround them. Frederick’s works are in turn exhibited against the Phillips’s array of Morris Graves’s paintings and sculptures of the Northwest American landscape. The central Frederick installation in the second room of the two-room show combines a video of a bubbling stream projected through the large brass and marble microscopes of Graves’s Weather Prediction Instruments for Meteorologists (1962–99). Frederick’s video intervention highlights the act of viewing Graves’s work from a vantage point such that the effect of the installation is similar to that of a deconstructed microscope.
If Frederick’s intention was to evoke a concern for environmental degradation, her pulp paintings and Weather Prediction are where she is more successful. The title piece is a video of California redwoods projected onto two adjoining walls that is narrated by Frederick’s voice reading off words (“fracking,” “environment,” etc.) in a monotone as they appear among the various pans of the forest — the overall effect is not dissimilar to a PowerPoint. This literal chiding of the hazards of industrial progress to the natural world is underscored by a series of round pulp prints that address drone warfare. Placed against the white wall, they resemble cross-sections of tree trunks and are emblazoned with drones and their signal towers — under one, in block letters, is printed: EXTINGUISH. There’s hardly any question as to Frederick’s view of the dubious ethics of drone warfare, and little room to doubt her stance on the sorry state of nature: an adjoining pulp painting is simply printed with the word FORGOTTEN.
Frederick’s unsubtle political dogmatism works against her dedication to nature and its materiality, but this might be attributed to the typology of environmentalist art that has entered our vernacular. Andy Goldsworthy’s site-specific landscape sculptures come to mind, as does Oliafur Eliasson and Minik Rossing’s Ice Watch. The latter, staged only a few months ago during the December 2015 COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change, drew international attention for the power evoked by its scale and the effort required for its assembly. The piece consisted of tugboats pulling actual icebergs from Greenland to the Place du Pantheon in Paris, which, arranged to resemble a clock, were then allowed to melt uninterrupted, in a public display of the urgency of climate legislation. But the time-based Ice Watch, like Goldsworthy’s interventions in grass and field, is immersive by design; the phenomenological experience of encountering such works in open spaces necessarily requires recognition of environment and nature. Frederick’s works, by contrast, are limited to the confines of a gallery. Although standing amid the sound and light between the walls that house Acts of Silence does allow for a somewhat immersive experience, the narration of trite, decontextualized words detracts from the work’s overall impact.
It is in the rough texture of the pulp paintings of Phenomenal Space that we see a more contemplative and personal understanding of the natural world. Moon Over the Lake (2015), another pulp painting ensconced behind Weather Prediction, juxtaposes a Buckminster Fuller–esque orb against a background of black and the deep blue foreground of the titular lake. Here, the contrast between the industrial, with its complex lines and geometric patterns, and the natural — the rough surface of the pulp — is evident but not overpowering, and it touches at the heart of Frederick’s concern: What will we have left, when all of nature’s ephemera are gone?
Acts of Silence continues at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st St NW, Washington, DC) through May 1.
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