The Statue of Liberty is to America what the Mona Lisa is to France: the nation’s best known work of art, one that people come from all over the world to see and appreciate. The history of Mona Lisa, however, is the story of a small painting that was promoted over the years from being just one of many works hung close together, along a wall densely covered with similar works of art, to having an entire, large wall all to itself, with space for hundreds of viewers to stand before it. By comparison, Liberty has gone from standing conspicuously alone on an island in New York Harbor, to being one relatively small object in a man-made landscape: one that can only be found because people deliberately look for it, and only seen well by those who take a special boat that brings them close enough to see it properly. How did this happen, and what does it tell us about the forces that impact a unique conjunction of rivers, estuaries, islands, and bays adjoining a mighty sea?
There are 88 works in the Bountiful Davis Art Center’s Statewide Exhibit, which we will look at in a few days. While a few artists successfully submitted two candidates, most of them are represented by a single work. In spite of the myth of the masterpiece — the single work so auspicious it alone establishes the reputation of a genius — in truth, unless the artist is familiar through a number of examples, it’s impossible to know from just one whether its maker has what it takes to merit further study. This is why we have the one-person show, which gives an artist a chance to prove that the lone object that made such an impression was not a fluke, but that she has a sufficient range of skills and ideas.
It so happens there’s an example of that at hand, as well. Downstairs at the BDAC, the landscape collages of Bianca Kolonusz-Partee, which she titles Hustle and Flow, make use of a single primary observation, a bold technical approach, and knowledge of nine sites around the world in a body of work that identifies a neglected, global threat to the environment. It begins with her realization that many of the world’s most beautiful bays and inlets also qualify as superior harbors, which has led to their being developed by turning them into industrial sites, often dredged and channeled to conform to shipping priorities, and having piers, wharves, and warehouses installed on their shores. She notes how the natural appeal of a sublime body of water, frequently enclosed by rugged coastal features, is threatened by the ever-increasing need of trade and commerce for larger and more mechanically efficient facilities. No one who has ever piloted a small craft close to a giant, high-speed container terminal can have failed to notice its intimidating impact on the surrounding land and water.
Hustle and Flow begins with “Staten Island Ferry” a tour-de-force that presents the panorama of New York Harbor as it seems to scroll by viewers making the title journey. Like each of these waterfront landscapes, Kolonusz-Partee has collaged it from variously-colored bits of packaging material, primarily heavy paper stock, each piece of which is glued only to other parts of the image, so that the perimeter of the work is the outline of what it depicts, so it includes no negative space. Implied sky and water are parts of the wall on which it’s mounted. Particularly effective is the way that, as the viewer comes closer, the scene dissolves into scraps of packaging such as constitute the life blood flowing through the veins and arteries of the harbor’s commercial traffic, even as water flows through the harbor itself.
The complexity of the problem, and the danger, can be seen in “Shimizu Port Below Mt. Fuji.” In the past, it might have been possible to stand on the mainland and look across a broad, J-shaped inlet to a large spit of land that enclosed it, then further along the gently curving shoreline to the distant vista of Mt Fuji, its perfect cone topped by a perennial snowcap and echoed by several intervening, smaller prominences. Today, however, instead of a delicate woodblock print or a poetic brush painting, the more honest image is that seen here, made from packages that shout their messages in order to be heard over the din of modern competition.
Perhaps the most ironic image is titled “Serendip,” as in serendipity, the ancient word for good fortune, chance, and happy accidents. It is also a second name for the island of Sri Lanka, one of the most cherished garden spots remaining in the world. It’s hard, gazing on Kolonusz-Partee’s bustling harbor, to believe it could be part of this land of jungles, beaches, and sites sacred to Buddhism, but it’s there — right down to the distant skyscrapers that no doubt mark this nation, which is exactly the same age as the writer of this review, as a place suitable for unlimited development.
Surely the most symbolically appropriate collage here is “Stuck,” which depicts the recent grounding of an enormous container ship in the Suez Canal, a mishap that threw the entire world of shipping into chaos. On emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, there were ports around the world where ships, unable to unload their cargoes, sat and waited while orders of every sort and quantity remained unfilled. The only thing that could have made things worse was a plug in one of the handful of crucial passages through which most of the world’s manufactured merchandise must squeeze. And that it actually happened adds to the timely warning Bianca Kolonusz-Partee makes through her art. Human enterprise cannot win a war against the environment or the Earth’s geography. The harmony that formerly existed in these remarkable places isn’t something we want to live without. Even if we could.
Hustle & Flow: Bianca Kolunusz-Partee, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through July 8