Decades before the Covid pandemic, when Climate Change was a theory only scientists and those who value their work accepted as truth, artists were already calling themselves “canaries in the coal mine.” There were past centuries, when little was understood about air quality and the effects of gasses like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide on the atmosphere and beyond, when miners took caged canaries down with them. Even if the miners felt fine, if the far more sensitive canary lost consciousness, it meant the air was bad and those digging were in danger. Exhibitions like that currently at Phillips Gallery, Our Global Climate Emergency, gave those artist-canaries a chance to warn about possible apocalyptic future events. Now that the threat of global warming has become a reality only the obdurate can deny, warnings have ceased to be “this is coming” and instead are saying “this is here, and, far from ending soon, will only get worse.”
Sandy Freckleton Gagon belongs to a modern school of religious painting that is realistic, or even photorealistic, but tends to bypass traditional narrative subjects in favor of images with subtle clues that suggest original narrative concepts and events: the lamb cradled in her savior’s arms has a bandaged leg; instead of the traditional group of rabbis, a mother teaches her son from a scroll. Gagon’s two small canvases now at Phillips focus on subjects she’s used before: a cockatoo and a butterfly. In “Momento,” the bird holds a burned match, connecting the careless start of so many wildfires to those who depend on the forest habitat. The “Restored” butterfly shared a previous canvas with a composite insect made from a scrap of a road map, with its body doubled by yet another match. Both alarms are soft-spoken, allowing the viewer to share in the discovery.
A subtle puzzle that captures how disoriented life feels these days is found in Emily Fox King’s “Some Things Don’t Make Sense.” Her jumbled subjects initially decline to resolve a coherent image. What eventually emerges is one painting of another painting: specifically, a real painting of an intuitive, perhaps naive painting of a rainbow, some sunflowers, and other flowers. Given her signature interest in children’s art, it could be a child’s view of a garden. All, even the signature, is upended by having been turned sideways. A dark, horizontal object, apparently the silhouette of a couch, must be in front, because it cuts off part of the background, and argues against simply turning the whole work ninety degrees. Instead, it brings to mind a situation well known to artists, who must often stash their works where they can. The work, though, suggests an epiphany and a useful lesson: that when things don’t make sense, it’s often because we’re not looking at them correctly.
There’s nothing wrong with sincerely stating the gravity of the present emergency. Billions of animals and uncounted plants have died in fires, while people have lost their homes, property, and lives. But sometimes somber expressions are less effective than lighthearted ones. Among the wittiest works at Phillips are two by Kamelia Pezeshki. This Iranian-born, experimental photographer lived in Utah long enough to establish a presence here before moving on to Toronto. She remains one of Phillips’ artists, where her response to the many industrial uses and treatments of plants living naturally could have been expressed by putting a dandelion in a plastic bag, had her art not given her a far better approach. She took a photo of a dandelion as its seed-parachutes were becoming airborne, then put the photo in the bag, where the futility of even attempting to live naturally is made clear. In a subtle statement of vast consequence, she went on to call attention to the plastic mesh and other merchandising tools that turn each natural food item into the tip of a giant chemical waste heap.
Irony isn’t the same as humor, but can be welcome and caustic at the same time. Corinne Geertsen’s “Might As Well Dance” parodies an old-time date photo, only the couple posing for their picture are paradoxical. While both have human bodies and dance face to face, the man has the head of a bull moose whose light-colored antlers contrast with his black dinner jacket. His “date” is a deer—a familiar form of representational miscegenation in which the similarity of genders in most species is overcome by using two different species. At their feet is a photographer’s prop log with underbrush, while behind them is a drapery backdrop of a distant waterfall under a cloudy blue sky. In a romantic cliché, the backdrop is help up by two hovering birds, but past its borders a desolate, burned-out forest and bare, rocky ground are revealed. Another level of irony appears in three photos by Gini Pringle, in each of which a relatively neutral, documentary photo is given new meaning by a new title. A desert golf course, all sand and scrub, acquires a future universality with the generic title, “Golf When the Water Runs Out.”
More of the urgency of the title Our Global Climate Emergency is also evident in Megan Gibbons’ more direct, but no less complex “Paradise,” wherein a woman looks out her window, as happened to personal friends of mine, and finds herself mortally threatened by an approaching wildfire that may assault her home as well. Paradise was, of course, the name of a town in California that was effectively obliterated by the Camp Fire, which destroyed almost 19,000 buildings and killed 85 people. In Gibbons’ deliberately ambiguous version, which captures the surreality expressed by survivors, what could be either a beautiful sunset or a symbolic sunrise points not to heaven, but to a hell on Earth. Connie Borup’s “Serenity” inverts these artists’ use of ironic titles, presenting a kind of Zen koan, here a visual moment of insight into the complex interaction of water and drought, life and death, and the terrible beauty that the Romantics called the Sublime.
Maureen O’Hare Ure’s “Smoke,” wherein delicately curling, calligraphic lines rise into the sky over a desolate landscape, tells of the aftermath of Gibbons’ cloud-like vision. Another unsettling view of water comes from Austin Palmer-Smith, whose “New Spring Morning” and “Southern Islands 2” contrast with recent images of the formerly great Salt Lake, now on a path to drying out completely, leaving a desert of life-threatening chemical ore, the dust from which could make the city that bears its name all but uninhabitable. One day shortly after this exhibition opened, Salt Lake City was reported to have the 11th worst air quality on Earth.
There’s a case to be made that any emergency is always the climax of a long period of building up, over overlooked, to a crisis point. Two centuries (only!) of fossil fuel use, the resulting filling up of the air with organic chemicals, and of sea and air with heat, were known issues before the summer fires. John Erickson’s heat-saturated, atmospherically claustrophobic imagery makes the crisis feel at once immediate and long-lasting. Taking a step further back, Trent Alvey’s “Dark Shape” collagraphs foreground melancholic facts of existence: as the Book of Common Prayer has it, “In the midst of life we are in death.” Rather than assume things are going well, with an occasional setback, we might do better to assume it is the good that lacks permanence.
The vital importance of art, with all its ambiguity, is that artists don’t just issue warnings. As these artists show, beauty and humor and, most of all, truth — even hard truth — are things that can make life bearable, even as we continue to struggle to make things better.
Our Global Climate Emergency, featuring work by 29 artists, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Aug. 13.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.