BP Oil Spill Inspired Artwork in 'Catalyst" Exhibit
By Thomas B. Harrison, Press-Register
MOBILE, Ala. — More than a year after the BP oil spill, Louisiana artist Allison Stewart has vivid memories of those harrowing weeks and months.
“I was inspired by all the silent devastation that occurred after the oil spill,” she says. “Marsh plants changed from verdant green to orange to scarlet to umber and finally to black as they absorbed oil from the water. Animals were captured in the oily muck along the shoreline. Birds engulfed in oil could no longer fly.
“All of this unfolded silently while oil continued to gush for over 100 days before being capped. Our fragile coastline was in a death grip and people were the ones making all the noise.”
Raine Bedsole says she “felt the depression and fear that was rampant in all of our communities — the feelings of utter helplessness in the face of a force that was destroying the very reason we live here.”
Robert Hannant says he was moved by “the human element of the spill . . . from both the BP side and the victims’ side. As we all saw many images of the oil and the birds and the marshes, there were enormous consequences for the families of those killed on the rig and the people who worked in the affected areas.”
The very mention of BP and the events of last year still evoke anger, disgust and outrage — and no small measure of sadness at what was lost and will continue to be lost in years to come. An impressive group of Louisiana artists have channeled their individual and collective responses through their art, and the result is “Catalyst: Artists of Southern Louisiana Respond to the Gulf Coast Oil Crisis” on view through Sept. 4 at Space 301 in downtown Mobile.
Robin Wallis Atkinson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is curator for the exhibit, which opened July 8 during the LoDa Artwalk and features more than 80 works by artists including Ron Bechet, Raine Bedsole, Debbie Fleming Caffery, Skylar Fein, Robert Hannant, Rajko Radovanovic, Christopher Saucedo, Allison Stewart, Robert Tannen and many more. (See information box.)
"Washed" by Anastasia Pelias, 2011, 72 x 72 inches, oil and acrylic on canvas. (Courtesy of Anastasia Pelias)
“Catalyst” presents more than 80 works of art in a diverse range of media, including photography, abstract painting, large-scale charcoal drawings, sculpture — both conceptual and representative, digital video and performance.
Public programming for “Catalyst” is co-sponsored by the Joan Mitchell Center, New Orleans; educational material supplied by the Gulf Restoration Network. Educational programming planned in conjunction with “Catalyst” includes a film series that will run for the entirety of the exhibition, moderated public and an information lounge.
The film series will feature local and regional documentaries that directly relate to the topics addressed in the exhibition and will conclude with discussions led by local environmental agencies. Public conversations will pair speakers addressing relevant issues that affect the residents of the Gulf Coast.
The Catalyst Lounge will be an information center offering resource materials in a variety of forms that complement the exhibit and provides information and connections with organizations dedicated to rehabilitating the environment.
Artwork by these Southern Louisiana artists is a direct response to the BP disaster of 2010 and is meant as “a spark to ignite an environmentally, politically and socially charged conversation,” according to a CLA news release. Issues include “degradation of the Louisiana Wetlands, the crippling effects on the seafood industry and the historically insufficient regulation of the petroleum industry in the Gulf South,” the news release states.
“Catalyst” also examines “the endemic systems of neglect that have long plagued the lands and the people of Southern Louisiana.” The exhibit . . . is described as “a holistic examination of the many sides of this disaster.” : ]
Read more about “Catalyst” and additional comments by the curator and participating artists on the Press-Register blog site: http://www.al.com/events/mobile.
Allison Stewart says “Catalyst” is “an exhibit of art about life, as compared to art about art.”
All art is political, she says, “and all artists are reporters on the human condition. Artists can scream or they can whisper if they choose, but they can say something important about who we are and how we treat the world. Moreover they can say something about the world as we wish it could be.”
Stewart will have four pieces in the “Catalyst” exhibit: “Vermilion Canto #7” is a mixed media painting on canvas, 48 by 60 inches, completed in 2010 shortly after the BP oil spill.
“It is a metaphor for blood on the water, as the incident killed 11 rig workers and countless marine species and birds,” she says.
Michel Varisco's "Edge of the Marshes" from his "Lake Borgne" Installation, 6 prints 138 x 45 inches, dye sublimated prints on polysilk. (Courtesy Michel Varisco)
Also on exhibit are three other pieces from her “Water Borne” series, completed in 2006. They are mixed-media works on paper, 23 by 52 inches, which allude to toxins in the waters of the Mississippi River and the Gulf as a result of fertilizer runoff, industrial waste and other things.
Raine Bedsole contributed two “long boat“ sculptures approximately 8 feet long made of paper and fabric “skin” over a steel structure, plus several watercolors on antique papers — ledger pages and London Daily News pages.
“The watercolors were a response last summer, to the overwhelming feelings brought on by the oil spill,” she says. “They are ‘portraits’ of the Forgotten Ones — the creatures not mentioned in the news because they aren’t seafood and have no economic effect on humans.”
Bedsole says her artwork represents an emotional response to the tragedy, and her work is not political.
“The watercolors are about the delicate beauty of sea life, memories of scuba diving and seeing this wonder, a reminder to protect the life we can’t see,” she says. “My work has always involved water; either as actual flow or as the ether of the psyche. This work is more specific than usual.”
Hannant has 12 pieces in the “Catalyst” show, all photographs shot on his iPhone. The images are 19-by-19-inches in the frame.
The oil spill “confirmed, once again, that the resiliency of the people of Southeast Louisiana should never be questioned,” the artist says. “Conversely, the greed and disregard of people in power in this country tells us that their ilk should always be kept in check.”
“As a pacifist and someone who has witnessed the human condition in times of disaster many times, the BP spill made me understand that in making political art my position will always be about the human element . . . as opposed to environmental or economic.
“I regard myself as someone who will ask viewers to consider what I propose as opposed to taking an angry or reactionary standpoint. It is always possible that at my prodding that the viewers’ conclusions may be stronger and more empowering than anything I could say in a more forceful manner.”
Dawn DeDeaux has two pieces in the exhibit: “Project Mutants,” which she says “addresses the larger geography of polluted waterways”; and “Family Legacy (Test Tubes)” for which she used a selection of photo-sculptures from a larger installation portraying a multigenerational family floating in vessels of water, “to illustrate our intimate relationship and dependency on water for personal survival and that of subsequent generations.”
“My core objective is to personalize the crisis via emotional resonance,” DeDeaux says. “I think the problem is not so simple as to only demonize industry.
"I imagine a more successful, far-reaching outcome to be derived from generating greater individual ownership and participation in problem solving; and the furthering of citizen-science and citizen-activists who can demand changes through our governmental processes; and through the advocacy of widespread lifestyle change to safeguard our environments.”
The artist says the BP oil spill magnified her concerns over water quality, and her recent exhibit, titled “Unseen,” was her immediate response to the disaster. For a “video walk” through of portions of “Unseen,” go to: http://www.arthurrogergallery.com/dynamic/video.asp?ExhibitID=189. Images of DeDeaux’ recent works can be viewed at: http://www.arthurrogergallery.com/dynamic/artist.asp?ArtistID=18.
Debbie Fleming Caffery says she is inspired by the beauty of Louisiana “and sadly inspired by the neglect (that) industry and our government have for it.”
Her work in this exhibit is titled “Giants” and is nine tintypes of fishermen/oystermen, each 8 by 10 inches — “these are sketches of images on tin that will eventually be made 16 by 20,” she says. “I made tintypes as they have an oily feel, and I thought this would be a good way to interrupt the work.”
Matt Vis and Tony Campbell of Generic Art Solutions will exhibit “Raft,” a 10-by-15-foot contemporary photographic representation (an “indoor billboard”) of Géricault’s 1818-19 painting “The Raft of the Medusa.”
“While Géricault was portraying the victims of a shipwreck, we are portraying the survivors of another tragedy at sea, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion,” Vis says. “Much of our photographic work is essentially contemporary interpretations of classical paintings with biblical and epic stories, put into contemporary context by weaving in current local events.”
Vis and Campbell in 2006 created “The Last Supper” as a crawfish boil in front of a FEMA trailer.
“With the media focused on the grossly understated and misnamed ‘spill,’ we kept reminding people that the tragedy actually began with a fiery explosion, immediately claiming 11 lives,” Vis says.
Also on view in “Catalyst“ will be the artists’ photo suite titled “A Body of Water: One through Eleven,” which Vis describes as “large, hauntingly empty photographs of the Gulf representing the human loss that the media quickly passed over.”
A piece from Dawn DeDeaux' 'Project Mutants' series is part of the 'Catalyst' show at Space 301. (Courtesy of Dawn DeDeaux)
Robin Wallis Atkinson is an independent curator based in New Orleans, where she works for the nonprofit collective Antenna Gallery in the St. Claude Arts District. In 2008 she was curatorial coordinator for Prospect.1 New Orleans, the largest-ever contemporary art biennial to be held in the United States.
She says the title of this exhibition is a double entendre.
“It first refers to the source of the exhibition topic, which was the disastrous oil release by BP in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2010,” she says. “Crude oil, in its refined states, is a common catalyst for many different chemical/physical reactions.
“It is my hope that this exhibition itself can become a catalyst for a larger and ongoing conversation about the perils of the petroleum industry in Southern Louisiana as well as issues about environmental conservation and proper balance between culture, nature and industry in this area.”
Artists were selected over the course of one year, according to Atkinson.
“The initial 15 were selected during the summer of 2010 with the additional artists added when the show was revived for Space 301,” she says. “Many of the artists are personal acquaintances of mine from my work with Prospect New Orleans as well as my involvement in the St. Claude Arts District. The process was very organic.
“I would have a studio visit with one artist, and as we were talking I would hear about the kind of work they were doing in response to the BP disaster, then they would tell me about another artist they knew of that was also working along the same theme.
“Eventually I found so many people working with such a similar ideological stance, I decided to get everyone (the initial 15) together for a group meeting and that is when I proposed the exhibition ‘Catalyst’ to the artists.”
“The art ranges from political to documentary to humanist, and is all extremely socially engaged.”
Although she declined to list the signature pieces in this exhibit, Atkinson says “each and every work in the show is as remarkable as the next.”
“With the largeness of the issues addressed in ‘Catalyst,’ I wanted to be very careful to pick artworks that were extremely well thought out, well executed and of the highest visual aesthetic,” she says. “It would be a disservice to the seriousness of these issues to do anything less.”
Atkinson hopes viewers will walk away from “Catalyst” with “a more cohesive understanding of the state of affairs in Southern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast — in relation to the BP disaster, to ongoing wetlands loss, to underregulated industrial practice and the fragility and interconnectedness between industry (petroleum, seafood, tourism) and environment.”
“I hope that each viewer will walk away with a petition that urges legislators to support the Oil Spill Commission’s findings and vote for putting Clean Water Act fines back into the Gulf ecosystems affected by the BP drilling disaster as well as the establishment of a Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council,” she says.
“These reforms are essential to the recovery and protection of the Gulf and the nation.”
’CATALYST’ at SPACE 301
WHAT: Centre for the Living Arts presents “Catalyst: Artists of Southern Louisiana Respond to the Gulf Coast Oil Crisis”
WHEN: through Sept. 4
WHERE: Space 301, Cathedral Square in downtown Mobile
ARTISTS: Ron Bechet, Raine Bedsole, Willie Birch, Debbie Fleming Caffery, Skylar Fein, Generic Art Solutions, Robert Hannant, Jennifer Odem, Anastasia Pelias, Rajko Radovanovic, Dan Rule, Christopher Saucedo, Allison Stewart, David Sullivan, Robert Tannen, Dan Tague, Michel Varisco.
CURATOR: Robin Wallis Atkinson
HOURS: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; noon until 5 p.m. Sunday
NOTE: Public programming for “Catalyst” is co-sponsored by the Joan Mitchell Center, New Orleans; educational material supplied by the Gulf Restoration Network.
LINKS: Gulf Restoration Network: http://healthygulf.org/
Press Street: http://www.press-street.com/
Space 301: http://www.space301.com/