Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Art as a Mirror: Diane Tuft on Nature and Human Impact

Diane Tuft, “Chopin’s Prelude,” 2022, color pigment print, 45 x 60 in.

The half-dozen large, brilliantly mis-colored images by Diane Tuft currently on view, mostly at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) but at least one at Modern West, could almost be Color Field paintings, if they didn’t contain so many photographic hints and clues. There’s another, also at UMOCA, in the lobby by the entry—a mural so large that it might be mistaken for wallpaper—that also runs the risk of being taken for a geothermal scene at Yellowstone or Mt. Lassen. Unfortunately, this nightmare, like the others, presents a view of the bed of the Great Salt Lake. A Google search for the artist’s name will bring up an option to watch a time lapse video of this mural’s installation. As the Museum’s staff zip through the process of mounting the many parts of the total image, a viewer may get a sympathetic feeling for the temporal pressure felt by artists who are trying to convey the state of an environment that is changing so fast that last year’s version, by the time it reaches the audience, is probably obsolete.

A popular perspective credits artists with telephoto vision: good for seeing the details but not so strong where the totality, the “big picture,” is concerned. A critic of the artist’s point of view regarding threats to nature might argue, for example, that it’s equally important to see not only the cost to the environment of human use, but the value: how the wild is fortified by human planning and intervention. Diane Tuft’s response comes from her ceaseless travels around the world and her ability to show that there is, in fact, only one environment: one we can, and do damage, but over which we have almost no control. So her recent foray into Antarctica, a continent scarcely touched by human activity, shows conclusively that the same depredations and the same catastrophic consequences she documents at the Great Salt Lake are now taking effect even at the South Pole.

Tuft looms large among artists who focus on the environment, one of many issues that became important in the decade of the ’60s, a time when this nation awoke from two decades of relative stagnation, dominated by the Cold War and the unquestioning loyalty of what is often called “the Greatest Generation,” and began to take a look at itself and its home-grown problems. Questioning distant wars in places like Vietnam was never popular while they raged, but for the first time since the end of a World War and its version of solidarity it became possible to question all sorts of conditions that Americans had passively accepted. Civil-, Minority-, and Indigenous-Rights were widely noticed for the first time. Schools, universities, and arts organizations were three of the places the genie began escaping the bottle, and efforts that began then to throttle the dissent that arose in response continue today. John F. Kennedy labeled himself the first president to be born in the 20th Century; his assassination just three years later created the paradigm of disrupting the fabric of society that would echo and be added to by 9/11, the Covid Pandemic, and the eventual, undeniable arrival of the long-denied effects of Global Warming.

Installation photograph, Diane Tuft: Entropy, January 26–April 27, 2024, photo by Zachary Norman, © UMOCA

Diane Tuft came of age through those years and was one of many who built her career on one of its issues. The alarm she continues to sound concerning the buildup of industrial pollutants in the air, water, and soil profited from the voice she developed over decades. Based in New York, where she is able to call upon an international population of well-connected socially and politically active allies, many of them celebrities who can help spread her message, she hastens to places that become signposts of environmental damage and activism. Modern West considers her one of their stable of artists, and her work is showing simultaneously there and at UMOCA.

Tuft is an artist and a woman: not “also” or “coincidentally,” but inseparably and, most of all, unapologetically. It’s as refreshing to hear her list her favorite and most influential artists and have them be women who often “fly beneath the radar” of public recognition, as the grotesque but workable public relations cliché has it, as it is to open today’s email and find that the stars of Grace and Frankie, who like Tuft are veterans of decades of public commitment, are using their public identities to organize in favor of saving the world from the disparity between those who care about the environment and those whose greed controls its fate, and ours.

Diane Tuft, “Diversion,” 2022, color pigment print, 40 x 60 in.

As befits her travels, Tuft’s works are often organized into series focusing on, but not limited in relevance to, specific places. Two recent ones, Entropy and Salt Lake Reconsidered, feature landscape-scaled photographs of the Great Salt Lake that skirt the boundary between those that warn viewers of present danger and those that may, on initial viewing, seem too beautiful to serve as warnings. Yet together they make the most telling argument about the perils we all face together. Their focus is described accurately as calling attention to the ultimate neutrality of nature with regards to us and our presence. For while it’s true that theories about nature point to its self-regulating properties and the way it trends towards stability over unimaginably large swaths of time, nowhere do they link nature with either our sense of ethics or our aesthetics. The beautiful can still be kill us, and all too often does. We cannot count on a natural savior any more than we can a human one. We have to do better, but that doesn’t mean we should each be satisfied to tend our own garden, as Voltaire wrote in Candide. We need to find a way to counter the power of those who utilize the vast human market place of ideas and activities to despoil nature on a scale beyond comprehension. Human nature is killing us and we have to change it. This is the reason why Diane Tuft’s art is so large: not to satisfy her ego, but to remind us that the problem is huge, and the solution will have to be even larger.

Diane Tuft, “Inscape,” 2022, color pigment print, 40 x 60 in.

Diane Tuft: Entropy, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Apr. 27

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