The Alaska Biennial 2020 was closing, and sadly wasn’t going to travel statewide. The show placard read, “Artists reflect the world around them and some of the work in this exhibition addresses the pandemic and ideas of isolation, racism and decolonization, as well as the surrounding—and changing—natural environment.”
With a mask on my face and two shots in my arm, I finally was back meandering through the first floor galleries of the Anchorage Museum. Color abounded as did texture, not only painted tree bark and native flowers, but carved wooden and metal birds, a crocheted garden, a beaded banner, grass basket, and re-configured white dress. The ten images I picked didn’t necessarily represent best executed works. However, the chosen art possessed narratives that burst through materials used, contextualizing Climate Change in the 49th state. Artists are not only sensitive to the environment, but often best at expressing need for stewardship of the Earth.
1: ‘Pallet Sculpture, 2018’ by Jessie Hedden (Fairbanks) is made of Costco-esque grocery pallets, which were jig-sawed and reimagined. ‘Pallet’ is word-play as a ‘palette’ is fundamental art studio equipment. This piece shows how recycling can take on a new form and reappear as ecologically ‘fundamental’.
2: ‘Alaskan Landscape, 2019’ by Rachel Mulvihill (Fairbanks) is an acrylic on canvas which explains distance by stacking several compositions. In the foreground the viewer is forced to hide behind a Birch tree, observing placement and condition of two oddly parked vehicles. The car on the right is strewn with plant life and perhaps abandoned adjacent to a well-kept Alaska-style house, complete with covered porch and metal roof. The auto on the left, oddly parked, could be abandoned to nature. Most people renting or buying a starter home in Alaska encounter junk cars rusting in woodsy areas, because land owners either refuse to recycle or decide it’s too costly to attempt removal.
3: ‘Pondering Pond Scum, 2020’, by Marianne Stolz (Fairbanks) is a carved sculpture with gouged edging making the stiff wood seem to be undulating like aquatic plants or floating debris. A painted blue-green panel underneath suggests a waterway. Viewers can contemplate the annual return of protruding lake lily pads or floating oil/gas causing environmental harm.
4: ‘Summer of Fire, 2019’ by David Pettibone (Homer) is an oil on canvas of burning trees weakened by Spruce Bark Beetle infestations. Forest fires sparked by lightning are a natural phenomenon, but flames often occur when vacationers fail to snuff out campfires, or carelessly ignite fireworks. Areas that lack sufficient water caused by Global Warming’s redistribution of this needed substance, become targets for conflagration’s landscape devastation, destruction of property, and loss of life.
5: ‘Northern Take Off, 2019’ by Nancy Hausle Johnson (Fairbanks) are three ceramic tiles showing a swimming water fowl back-dropped by trees. The first tile depicts the bird contemplating flight. The second tile shows wings in motion as the bird breaks the surface of the water. The third tile shows the bird in flight. Ripples on the water, light shining through the forest, fool viewers into supposing this Modern-esque clay composition could be a work on canvas.
#6: ‘Picking the Net, 2020’ by Mark McDermott (Anchorage) is a watercolor of a fisherman adjusting his setnet. The faceless fisherman (gender immaterial) surrounded by the sea is the focal point, as the diagonal netting, which the person is manipulating, attempts to sever the briny composition. Salt water, ignoring the plastic-coated worker, gently kisses the beach creating froth amidst the figure’s reflection, only to retreat into greater depths where the paint obediently darkens the ocean. Light bounce also unites this composition. Keeping the oceans pristine is a must.
#7: ‘Harbor Under Quarantine Flag, 2020’ by Sylvia Lange (Cordova) is an acrylic on linen with primary/secondary coloration entanglements of overlapping boats, sails and rigging. Code flags ‘S-R-L’ spell the artist’s initials. Atop this composition a yellow quarantine pennant waves. Once this mustard flag signaled a ship had deadly diseases aboard, like Cholera or Smallpox, and would have to anchor offshore. Today, this flying yellow cloth signals a ship is disease free. ‘2020’ appears in this collage—‘2020’ marked the year of Pandemic with paradoxical stumbling blocks around first quarantining and now vaccinating the entire planet.
#8: ‘Skull Peak, 2019’ by Klara Maisch (Fairbanks) is an oil on linen of a glacial mountain near Fairbanks. Gradations of grays and browns found in the variety of cascading rocks lock in sliding slush. Like a melting ice cream sundae, the white cascading snow is mixed with beige swirls, mimicking diffusing chocolate sauce. However with Global Warming, there’s no cherry on the top of this reality. The composition is held together by the blue-gray sky and the small area of orange-oxide rock at center-right.
#9: ‘Hatcher Pass, 2020’ by Kerby Mcghee (Anchorage) is an oil on canvas, revealing abandoned equipment from the late Nineteenth Century’s mining frenzy-- Geologist M.F. Stephenson (1802-1881) coined the cliché, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” The machine’s orange-yellow rust is echoed in the painting’s yellow-orange middle ground, which is a complement to the purple mountain in the background, containing a soupçon of reflected orange. The Cobalt blue sky bounces off the peek, and the remaining blue-gray steel of the rusting appliance. Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine are a State Park tourist destination for hiking and skiing. While it has been repurposed, the area is a reminder of the devastation to the Earth from greed and corruption.
#10: ‘Fracking-The Second Coming of Krakatoa, 2019’ by Lloyd Crow (Anchorage) is a mixed media work warning about the destruction caused by injection of a water/sand/chemical mixture pressured into the ground for extracting oil and gas. Atop the painting, that might suggest underground disturbances or the artist’s rendering of the 1883 Krakatoa explosion, is a model of an oil rig complete with roughnecks. Krakatoa’s volcanic explosion was equivalent to 200 megatons of TNT, and flying detritus changed weather patterns worldwide. The painting balances on china shards representing the unseen mess left beneath the Earth’s surface after drilling. One plate reads, “The Seal of the Territory of Alaska.” Although Alaska is not the biggest fracking arena, some does happen, and more is contemplated. Black paint resembling gushing oil drips down this entire piece. Fracking needs lots of water, releases poisonous chemicals, and causes earthquakes. This work compares a natural disaster to one that is impending, but avoidable.
Happily, Covid hasn’t stopped artists from using the year-long lockdown to ponder, create, and contextualize the need to preserve the Earth.
Jean Bundy is a writer/painter in Anchorage and serves on the Board of AICA-International (art critics).