Over the last few months, visitors to A Greater Utah, UMOCA’s indispensable survey of the state of the State’s art, may have wandered back to the AIR gallery in the corner and been puzzled by Gut Sang. Artist in Residence Ben Sang’s exhibition departed from convention by placing three isolated works in an otherwise empty room, which may have left some guests confused or hungry for more. If so, they will surely be satisfied, at least initially, by Solastalgia, the new occupant of the AIR. Andrea Jensen’s own AIR exhibition features more than 30 colorfully atmospheric, mixed media landscapes that freely combine representation and abstraction, as so many of today’s artists do to positive effect.
That easy, initial sense of anticipation may be short-lived, however, as a closer look makes it apparent that Jensen has something else in mind. A clue to just what is found in the overall title, the only one in the entire show: a new word formed by combining the first part of “solace” with the last part of “nostalgia.” It’s one of several words coined recently by the Australian philosopher and climate activist Glenn Albrecht, in response to his insight that unlike losing a home by moving elsewhere, having a habitation irrevocably altered, even destroyed, while one is still occupying it is something that cannot be anticipated or compensated for by the rewards traditionally associated with a voluntary move. The root of nostalgia is the Greek word for pain, and Albrecht sees the matter as one of “the homesickness you have when you’re still at home.” Another term sometimes associated with it is “pre-traumatic stress,” as differentiated from post-traumatic stress.
It’s fairly obvious to the discerning that our environment is changing in challenging ways. It’s also apparent that so far, the process remains deniable. Each new degree of temperature, each addition to the severity of storms, soon becomes the “new normal,” so that the continuing slide into inhospitality remains concealed. What Jensen seeks to do in her art is to elevate that almost subliminal transition until it becomes ominous, but to do so without losing track of the appeal of the places she represents. She could paint a dry lake bed, or a dust storm, or a ghost city, but to do so would take her views into the realm of science fiction. Instead, where a calendar photograph or travel poster would choose a rare, fine day, she presents a marginal, but real and recent day, and contours it in ways calculated to get through to anyone paying attention.
An example on the back wall strongly resembles a classic view across Great Salt Lake, with a mountain-like island or peninsula centered in the distance and a blue sky above. Variations in light and apparent reflections on the water create visual interest, while off-center framing lends depth and animation. However, these devices cannot prevent the eventual recognition that the island is dark, as though under attack from the mottled and striated, polluted-looking sky. Although subtle, once seen, the effects will remain unsettling.
The addition of geometric elements, none of them conventionally natural, displace the sense of present time, like so many “artist’s representations” of historical or intended change. One distant view of the lake features five yellow objects that could be standing stones. A blue stripe like a berm or road and a triangular line create a sense of seeing through the present, down into the past. In the painting next to that one, an array of variously-colored bands that create a powerful sense of linear perspective suggest another artist’s rendering: this one of a future roadway, power line, or other proposed construction. Creating an analogy between the familiar experience of pending — and not necessarily welcome — development and an equally unwelcome environmental disaster is an effective way of foregrounding the deceptive fragility of nature.
One particularly intriguing and captivating meditation consists of 14 small images that look like pages from a notebook, or sometimes like a textbook. Their number suggests the lines in a sonnet, which opens the set up to further contemplation and comparison. Various anomalous details, such as a series of drawn boxes or lozenges or a solid line running across the image, suggest a video still, and any number of repeated elements create the visual equivalent of rhythm and a rhyme scheme.
To fully appreciate what Andrea Jensen has attempted in Solastalgia, it’s necessary not only to have a strong feeling for the landscape, both in art and in reality, but to keep that familiarity foremost in mind while sorting through her visual commentary. It wouldn’t do to see her realistic, indeed romantic images of nature penetrated by geometric abstraction as just another example of what artists are doing these days, often to no more than decorative effect. She’s looking ahead, and sadly, probably not all that far, to what some of her audience is already suffering, and what the whole planet is almost certainly soon to wake up and find themselves enmeshed in. For the aware in her audience, to paraphrase William Nicholson’s play, Shadowlands: the Solastalgia to come then must be part of society’s collective oblivion today.
Andrea Jensen: Solastalgia, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 6.