at North River Community Gallery

Each of Diane Cox’s five new environmental sculptures provides rich and complex layers of rhetoric–even if at first glance each seems to make an obvious statement, there are subplots. The more you demand of this work, the more answers it provides.

All of these pieces–with the exception of E Is for Elephant, done in December 1990–were conceived and completed since January 1991 with this particular gallery space in mind. Cox fully exploits its unusual three-room arrangement–two small storefronts and one larger room. By isolating a single sculpture in each of the two front rooms, she draws singular attention to them; but a second glance reveals that these two pieces–E Is for Elephant and Whisper–are related. Each of the three pieces in the other room–Below, Use No Hooks, and Counterclockwise–makes an eloquent statement all its own, yet they share a common environmental concern.

Counterclockwise is kinetic: an eight-foot wheel like a windmill turns slowly at the end of a treadmill-like fan belt moving at an infinitely slow speed, like Butoh dancers. Each of the windmill’s four spokes is lined with a row of blackened feathers, which look real because they are: they’re turkey feathers dipped in beeswax with an overlay of graphite. The resulting dull metallic sheen makes them resemble bronze, as if they were commemorating something.

In fact, the piece starkly condemns the gulf war and its grimy oil spills, which blacken the environment as they have tarred so many feathers. The work’s slow, repetitive mechanical drone is like the barrage of 24-hour news reports and constant images of the war. Even when you turn to contemplate the sleek Zen-like lines of Below, you can still hear the squeaky sound of the engine in Counterclockwise in its never-ending circular motion. In a way, this piece is as ironic, romantic, and hollow as the foolish knight tilting at windmills in Cervantes’s novel. But Don Quixote was fighting imaginary monsters with a real sword, while in Cox’s sculpture the monsters are real and our weapons against them are ineffectual: no matter how hard and how often artwork may cry for peace, it can’t create it. The work’s dead-end path runs counter not only to the ecological order but to life itself. All that’s left after its deadly passage are the charred feathers, which resemble skeletal remains still eerily creaking. The gulf war comes to mind most readily, but the piece could be protesting any environmental catastrophe.

Use No Hooks is as uncompromisingly condemnatory as Counterclockwise. Huge chunks of coal fill three large industrial paper sacks propped against the wall; a fourth, ripped open, lies in front of them, and on the wall above it hangs a six-foot gold-foil hook. Given the title, it looks as if the hook has been used on the broken sack, scattering its contents. The hook itself is not the real thing–gold leaf, not gold–just as the mottoes on the sacks are false advertising. One reads “Detergent for Automatic Washers”; another, “Soy-Fortified Sorghum Grits”; but all of them contain coal. The label on another bag reads “Not to be sold or exchanged,” yet the sack itself, in the context of this artwork, has become a commodity (the piece is priced at $900).

Like the gold-foil hook, the U.S. presents a false message of prosperity, but on a global scale–it’s the generous big brother reaching out to impoverished countries while unemployment and homelessness reign at home. The false promises on this packaging conceal only coal–like getting coal in your stocking at Christmas. And stamped on the bottom of one sack is a contract number–but obviously the contract was not fulfilled, a breach of faith and bad business. From the broken treaties with the American Indians to the false alliances in modern times, American promises have often been just a matter of empty words. At the top of the grits sack is a logo of a handshake with “USA” printed below it, an unmistakable accusation–the lure of false advertising again.

Below, a look at the lyrical forces of nature, gives a moment of respite from the rhetoric of Use No Hooks and Counterclockwise. Below is like a beautiful, almost magical piece of landscape photography–and it has the same eerie unreality. A row of rocks is suspended from the ceiling; beneath each rock is a skinned and bleached, nearly branchless tree hanging upside down. Strangely, their uprootedness is not unsettling but calming–they could be reflections of the real thing in a pool of water, or the deep roots that lie underwater, under a stepping-stone pathway. They may be the denuded trees of winter. But, because they are in reality skinned Christmas trees, they should have their greenery, not lose it even temporarily.

What seems real here, no matter how convincing, isn’t. The rocks–held in surreal suspension by fishing line strung through them and attaching them to the trees–are only amazingly realistic imitations. Like faux marble, they’re painted styrofoam. Contemplative reality is just as surreal: the eight suspended trees may be symbolic of infinity, and some extra space in the middle of the row is like a doorway into it. The stark, bare-bones whiteness of the trees–each like a long white branch–creates its own layered reality. It’s a rare sculpture that, like a dance, can alter your plane of perception, so that you view it on a multitude of levels simultaneously. From that heightened or lowered level, it’s an easy step into meditation.

E Is for Elephant is at once the most lyrical piece in the exhibit and the most poignant. A tiny lowercase “e” is glued onto one wall; suspended horizontally in front of it is a woven basketlike construction shaped like a trumpet or a straightened elephant trunk. Between its flared wrapped-leather ends are rows of piano keys held in place by tiny copper-colored wires. It must have taken many painstaking hours to weave it all together, reminding one of the hours bored sailors on whaling ships spent carving ivory. But if you peer through one of the structure’s open ends, it becomes a gunsight focused directly on the “e,” the surrogate elephant.

The seemingly endless supply of ivory from elephant tusks is running out with the death of each elephant. Yet with death there can be a different harvest than carved baubles: the ivory piano keys. An elephant in the jungle might have its own lyrical beauty, but its destruction can result in a totally different, artificial lyricism: out of the desolation of death comes a new life and hope. Yet at what a cost. Unlike Counterclockwise, the machinery of death here seems more personal, has its own structure–the neat, precise rows of piano keys in the sculpture.

Whisper has its own visceral reality. Another suspended upside-down skinned tree, this one has a shock of ostrich feathers at its bottom tip. The stark, clean lines of the shellacked tree trunk are in sharp contrast to the decorative lyricism of the fluff of feathers. You think first, a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Then, if you’ve just come from the room with E Is for Elephant, you may think of ritual purification: brush brooms and feather brooms sweeping the place clean in preparation. Your mind, though, overloaded with imagery, takes an eager pleasure in the reversion to this sudden clean sweep of sculpture for sculpture’s sake: the simplicity of line in its own clear angle, enshrined in its own room. Art for art’s sake: it’s in the nature of things. Or at least in the way we perceive them.