Sunday, June 21, 2009

Joseph Smolinski: Ground Control at Swarm Gallery

Swarm Gallery's recent show of drawings, animation and sculpture by Joseph Smolinski was an impassioned comment on the state of our environment. In Smolinski's surrealist drawings, animals strike back against the human technologies that have infiltrated their landscape. The works are funny, yet politically charged. The care with which they are rendered lends added weight to the artist's commentary.

Joseph Smolinski. Spinning Tree for Spent Oil, 2008.
Courtesy of Swarm Gallery, Oakland.

In a utopian series of images, wind turbines generate power on land and in the open sea. To better adapt them to their surroundings, Smolinski proposes that the turbines be camouflaged as rudimentary trees. There are several color pencil drawings of the tree turbines, as well as a motorized prototype with sharp outlines. Perched atop oil derricks, the trees smoothly capture ocean winds. Meanwhile, in another group of drawings in graphite, creatures such as a sloth and a lion are actively reclaiming their terrain from a tangled throng of wires. Tombstones in a graveyard mark the passing of outdated clean technologies such as electric cars and wind turbines, replaced in Smolinski's vision with the more advanced tree turbine.

Joseph Smolinski. Disconnected - Three-Toed Sloth, 2009.
Courtesy of Swarm Gallery, Oakland.

In a side gallery, Smolinski presents sculptural installation, drawing and video works about Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a major land art work on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Basing his project on a report about the efforts to preserve this artwork and prevent oil drilling near its site, Smolinski visualizes the worst-case effects. The animation shows an oil derrick exploding and flooding the Jetty. The drawing depicts an oil tanker, sunk off the Jetty's edge. The installation of salt-encrusted rocks from the lake, soaking in oil, operates as a Smithson-esque non-site, a marker of place superimposed upon the white cube of the gallery.

Joseph Smolinski. RIP Jetty, 2009.
Courtesy of Swarm Gallery, Oakland.

Smolinski's visualizations of the Jetty are artfully rendered, and his concerns about the work's preservation are legitimate. However, there have long been large-scale industrial mining operations to recover oil, salt, and various chemicals from the Great Salt Lake, which is rich in minerals and fossil fuels. These operations, and a disused oil jetty from an earlier excavation period, predate Smithson's 1970 artwork. The lake itself is in constant flux, having first risen so that the Jetty was underwater for more than a decade, and more recently shrunk so that the work is entirely landlocked.

This is not to disagree with Smolinski's (and the Dia Foundation's) belief that the Jetty site should be preserved as a cultural landmark rather than subjected to fallout from drilling. I would simply like to have seen what Smolinski's commentary would look like if his argument were to take a more nuanced view of the discussion about the Jetty, its location and its future. The Spiral Jetty itself is a marker of the multiple uses and histories of the Great Salt Lake, one which references geology and human activity alike. Perhaps by allowing more space for humans within his vision, Smolinski might also push his work further toward visualizing an attainable balance rather than a comforting, but fundamentally inaccessible, utopia.


Chelsea Bryan Knights said...

I love that painting "Spinning tree for spent oil." It's completely inspiring to me, as an artist often posting my own artwork on my blog.

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