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Earthly Desires

Art Review


EXHIBIT:"Human=Nature," installations and other works by Michele Brody, Jackie Brookner, Michael Flomen, Yumi Kori, Robert Rauschenberg, Seed Collective, Alan Sonfist and Stephen Vitiello. Firehouse Gallery, Burlington. Through July 30.

ARTWORK:"Concurrence" by Michael Flomen

The title of the current Firehouse Gallery show seems to suggest a simple equation: "Human = Nature." But humanity's relationship with nature has always been problematic, to say the least. Should we rule over nature or instead play the role of stewards, treading as lightly as possible upon the land?

That question has long been germane in American art history. Hudson River School painters began examining our place in nature by glorifying North America's grandeur. A century later, artists of the Earth Art, or Land Art, movement began to reshape physical landscapes, with earthworks designed to interact with nature beyond the realm of galleries. "Human = Nature" highlights where we are now, ecologically speaking, through the vehicle of art, and attempts to raise questions about what we are doing to the planet.

All four floors of the Firehouse are being utilized for this exhibition of mostly out-of-state artists. Of the installations on the first floor, Michele Brody's "Vermont Preserve" is the most visually engaging. Filling the darkened room is a grid of 24 small medicine bottles perched on thin metal rods that vary in height; rye seeds are growing hydroponically in each bottle. The gallery walls are painted black, and small lights hang over each bottle, both nourishing and illuminating the germinating seeds. The bottles glow under their tiny spotlights. The installation aims to illustrate the vulnerability of agriculture in an era of genetically modified organisms. Brody protects her crop, ironically, by growing plants in an unnatural gallery environment.

Light is also important in the photographs of Michael Flomen -- the only artist in the show with a Vermont connection, he lives part-time in Crafts- bury. "Concurrence" is a 4-by-6-foot black-and-white image that appears misty, like the birth of star clusters as seen by the Hubbell telescope. But Flomen's "stars" are lightning bugs. He corralled the fiery insects in a glassed-in space, and photosensitive paper below them was exposed to their bioluminescence. The result is mysteriously beautiful images created by the random patterns of the bugs' flight paths. Flomen's seven photographs are unique testaments to normally unseen visual rhythms in the natural world.

The Robert Rauschenberg silkscreen-and-collage work, "Earthday," is also hung on the second floor. The 1970 piece harkens back to the era when art and environmentalism were first linked, as an outgrowth of Minimalism, in the United States. In the center of the 51-by-17-inch, sepia-toned print is a bald eagle -- an endangered species at the time -- and surrounding it are images of environmental degradation.

Jackie Brookner's second-floor installation "Utterance" is a bit more ambiguous, though as accessible as a greenhouse. She grows mosses, lichens and ferns on a large, cast-concrete sculptural form. Water trickles from it into a pool below, which is populated by houseplants, snails and small fish. The sculpture is, oddly, a giant tongue -- an image that conjures associations from the Rolling Stones logo to Kali, the Hindu goddess of creation and destruction. But beyond that, "Utterance" is an organic process as well as a work of art. Brookner has created a self-contained ecosystem within a sculptural installation.

Landscape architect and conceptual artist Alan Sonfist is a first-generation Earth artist who is primarily involved in modifying urban environments. Three 48-by-48-inch, mixed-media paintings of his "Time Landscape -- Past, Present and Future" fill a wall on the fourth floor. The three beautifully executed canvasses illustrate, in sequence, the revitalization of a junk-strewn plot of land in New York City. Sonfist's vision is to reintroduce indigenous Manhattan flora and fauna to the metropolis.

The Toronto-based Seed Collective aims to plant more trees in Burlington, Vermont, with the help of a high-tech network involving cellphones, computers and digital imaging. Its interactive installation on the Firehouse's third-floor stairwell allows local participants to grow their own -- trees, that is. See "State of the Arts," on page 22A in this issue, for more details on that project.

Victoria Anstead, the guest curator of "Human = Nature," provided welcome text for this exhibition, both on the walls and in the catalogue, elucidating the show's context in contemporary art. All of the exhibiting artists show internationally.

As we advance into the 21st century, life is bound to get more technologically complex. But artists of every medium will continue to explore our ancient connection to nature.