at ARC Gallery

“Earth Statements” at ARC Gallery offers an interesting assortment of installations by young, little known Illinois artists on the sociopolitics of ecology. Lately a number of artists have turned to organic and temporal work that addresses the threat an industrialized society poses to nature. A number of well-known artists have been exploring this realm for some time: New York artists Mel Chin and Meg Webster, and Chicago’s Dan Peterman and John Pakosta. All of their work focuses on the environmental or organic, and Chin’s and Peterman’s fosters social agendas for recycling or reclamation. The show at ARC draws on similar ideas. Though these artists do not take a unified approach, the separate responses the pieces elicit are interesting in themselves.

Ben Pranger’s piece, Elergy, located in the main gallery space, has an ethereal presence. The artist has tied fresh leaves together with nylon string and suspended numerous strips of them from the ceiling. Interspersed throughout are handbags fabricated of chicken wire, also hanging from the ceiling, that contain slabs of ice with pennies embedded in them. As the ice melts, the pennies fall off and the water drips into pans. Pranger gets across the point that the money spent on progress comes at nature’s expense, but the piece is thin and utilitarian: the chicken wire in particular handicaps the look of the piece. Yet the intermittent sounds produced by the water dripping and pennies falling do capture your attention. Though this work is underdeveloped in some ways, it has wonderful potential.

Just to the left of Pranger’s work is Nicole Beck’s installation, Succession. Beck has set up what appears to be an elaborate nature experiment. A number of garden vegetable roots hung upside down on the wall are in themselves striking: seldom in our mass-produced food market do we have the chance to view plants pulled from the ground with their root systems intact. In front of them is a long, flat rectangular trough filled with water; at one end is a box filled with plants, and at the other a box filled with smooth pebbles and covered with Plexiglas. On top of the Plexiglas are jars containing seed samples and carefully labeled with dates. On the opposite wall is a wooden shelf containing test tubes or vials partially filled with grain or seed. Beck asserts the need to embrace, even revere the growing process, and the elaborate experimental overtones in Succession hint at reclamation, seed preservation, or perhaps simply the act of gardening itself. Yet a good deal needs to be explained. Though artists’ statements often reduce the work to a didactic textbook level, here’s one case where a statement might have helped. This piece is open-ended to a fault.

The other half of the main gallery space is occupied by Forbidden Fruit, the work of Cynthia Morgan, whose materials and approach are the most sensuous of the group. Borrowing from the work of Rona Pondick, whose fetishized collapsed baby bottles resemble breasts, Morgan uses rural imagery to connect human and animal reproduction. Latex udders are capped with fingers from rubber gloves; the “nipples” drip wax. Latex pants hanging from the ceiling drop almost to floor level, with small piles of dirt directly beneath them. These pants contain small cages filled with live crickets, and the sound of the crickets mingles with the sounds of dripping water and dropping pennies to create a curious cacophony in the gallery; one has the same sense of fecundity inspired by a country field in the summertime. A swing constructed of two of the latex pants sewn together and stuffed with insulation hangs playfully over a circle of AstroTurf. Attached to each end of the swing is a small nest filled with nuts or pods, many of which have fallen on the floor. The protective connotations latex has assumed in our culture, with the outbreak of AIDS, are given a new twist in this work, which plays with metaphors of several kinds. The swing is open in the center like a vulva, and though one could sit in it one might fall through the hole. The hanging pants containing crickets speak of an urgent sexuality, of a natural, earth-born craving. There are a number of other elements in Morgan’s installation that are similarly ambiguous, but they don’t have the same muscle as these do.

The three installations in the adjoining gallery have a stronger sociopolitical and metaphysical cast. As a group these artists lack the conceptual cohesion, the interest in organic forms, of the other three. In After-Image Bonnie Ford attempts to combine the earthly with the spiritual. On the floor, set against one wall painted with vertical green and maroon stripes, is a bed of prairie grass nearly 12 feet square and about 5 feet tall. On the opposite wall is a series of photographs of a decorated Christmas tree colorized to become successively darker and more lurid. Underneath each photo is some text referring to the artist’s brother, who is dying of AIDS, and the photos are set off by contrasting horizontal stripes of maroon and green painted directly on the wall. Her attempt to link these two unlike elements is ambitious, the prairie grass is striking in this environment, and in the photos Ford clearly seeks to oppose the pathos and spirituality of the dying to the living organic matter across the room. But the connection is forced, and the work reads more like two separate pieces.

Just off this gallery, in a self-contained room, is God Bless Our Home by Eric Guzman Manabat. It has little to do with ecological questions–it’s about social environments, how cultural attitudes manifest themselves in the life-styles of colonized citizens. Manabat, a Filipino American, reacts with humor and cynicism to the effects America’s Eurocentrism has had on an essentially Asian culture. The room, with its green bamboo wallpaper, is filled with wooden knickknacks that have probably been produced overseas; one is a carved wooden plaque of the Last Supper. The room has a couch with a corduroy slipcover, a TV and VCR. Over the sofa is a hand-painted poster of a Filipino revolutionary, and on the coffee table is a book of Filipino history. Yet little in the room is clearly and inherently Filipino: Manabat’s environment playfully reflects a mishmash of various cultures.

The last piece, Orange House by Patrick McGee, is a three-dimensional geometric configuration that spans the space at one end of the gallery from floor to ceiling. Made from taut wire, it speaks in the abstract geometrical language of Sol Lewitt. As anyone can attest who’s seen scientific drawings that illustrate forces such as magnetism and gravity, science can make for compelling art. This work is elegant and riddled with a geometric tension. But unfortunately it looks spare next to the prairie grasses, and its scientific view of earth’s geomagnetic forces (explained in a written statement) seems lofty and distant compared with the other, more earthbound perspectives here.

Though it’s problematic in certain respects, “Earth Statements” has much to offer the viewer, on both a sensual and an intellectual level–and it’s an important step for artists whose ideas are still evolving.