For the three generations since World War II during which America prospered, through sometimes less-than-noble methods, art was proscribed by influential critics from not only commenting on politics, as it had during the Depression, but even from representing the visible world. We’re now seeing a resurgence of political artwork, the disconnect between rhetoric and reality having become too obvious to ignore. The new activism is like a resurgence of the 1930s Social Realist movement, but informed by conceptualism and new media rather than the Expressionism, Surrealism and naïve Marxism of the past; its enemies are capitalist overreach, oil addiction, overconsumption and global warming, rather than authoritarian ideologies; it postulates the end of America’s petroleum-based empire (hail and farewell, Vigoro and Viagra!), and sometimes, even more bleakly, the end of humanity — though with perhaps more humor than one might expect.
The current show at Limn Gallery, featuring work in painting, photography, sculpture and video by Chris Ballantyne, Lisa Dahl, Thomas Doyle, Jessalyn Haggenjos, Wendy Heldmann, Liz Hickok, Emily Hung, Maura Jasper, and Lori Nix, and curated by Christine Duval, contains a lot of humor and satire — but at the service of serious concerns. Well made and provocative rather than overtly propagandistic these pieces may be, but they ask us to throw off our conditioning and face up to unpleasant, inconvenient truths.
The paintings put viewers in deserted or ravaged landscapes. Ballantyne’s depictions of isolated elements afloat in space or in vast reaches of water are both lyrical and a little forbidding, beautiful but empty: post-human nature? Heldmann makes cool, loosely rendered paintings from photographs of earthquake-damaged cabins, single-family dwellings, and apartment buildings or warehouses — always timely in San Francisco.
The photographic works imply, not of apocalypse, then at least an alteration of the present. Hung’s nocturnal landscapes of downtown San Francisco from the Bay Bridge to Nob Hill show the building lights twinkling beneath a hovering fog —menacing, in this context. Nix takes another approach, depicting a miniature museum, replete with Corinthian pilasters and miniature gilt-framed paintings and marble sculptures — and a real beehive and real bees that look gigantic here, perhaps an allusion to swarms that will exist only in memory and museums in the future, given their current mysteriously dwindling numbers.
The sculptures also employ miniatures. Doyle’s detailed model houses within their micro-atmospheric bell jars are half-buried in snow or earth, surrounded by fences and trees, and tiny homeowners. Haggenjos’s miniature landscape, however, is unpopulated, but seemingly unstable; it’s a miniature planet with dual realms of stone and water, and as tippy as an overloaded canoe.
The videos adopt a uniformly ironic, humorous tone. Dahl’s arrays of suburban small houses (made from sugar cubes) are destroyed by irresistible tidal swells or vegetation growth; the elements are always out to get us. Hickok films her wobbly Jell-O models of San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts and its adjoining lagoon shaken by an earthquake and swamped by a tsunami (blueberry Jell-O, not quite set?). Jasper films ordinary senior citizens good-naturedly improvising as weatherpersons, recounting their favorite climatological stories and theories while cartoonish graphics make fun of television’s nightly happy talk.
Also on view are installations and sculptures by Caleb Duarte that employ construction materials and methods to achieve monumental effect. The show is entitled Dirt Walls, and is, of course, relevant to the group show.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Thomas Doyle, Forces of Nature, July 26 - August 29, 2008; LIMN Gallery, As You Were, 2007, mixed media, 12.5 x 14" dia, courtesy of the Artist and LIMN Gallery. Wendy Heldman, Forces of Nature, July 26 - August 29, 2008; LIMN Gallery, We fall asleep with one hand under our head, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24", courtesy of the Artist and LIMN Gallery. Wendy Heldman, Forces of Nature, July 26 - August 29, 2008; LIMN Gallery, Coulda Woulda Shoulda, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24", courtesy of the Artist and LIMN Gallery. Forces of Nature, July 26 - August 29, 2008; LIMN Gallery, installation view, photo courtesy of LIMN Gallery. Thomas Doyle, Forces of Nature, July 26 - August 29, 2008; LIMN Gallery, Defilade, 2008, mixed media, 7.5 x 16" dia, courtesy of the Artist and LIMN Gallery.)