The earliest clear warnings of the coming environment crisis, fifty years ago, included the horrific-sounding, and indeed horrific, acid rain. Pollution from coal-fired electrical generation and similar industrial activity was filling the atmosphere with sulfuric and nitric acids, which fell with the rain, killing plants and polluting rivers and lakes. A young artist named Buster Simpson came up with a response that would soon become characteristic of him: since limestone, basically calcium, neutralizes acid, he had giant limestone lozenges carved and placed in some damaged waterways. The media loved it, and while he always refers to this addition of limestone to what are now often rising waters as a “Purge,” it was more often spoken of by them along the lines of “Tums for the Earth.” In one stroke, Simpson called attention to the problem, unforgettably taught what people needed to know about its sources and dangers, and made an argument for a cure: one that was both possible and available.
Simpson would be among the first to admit that there are limits to what art can achieve. Central Utah, for example, is largely an ancient sea floor, already rich in limestone, so acid rain here doesn’t call for giant antacid pills, and coal is still a major fuel. But the pollution caused by industrial mining around Great Salt Lake, which drew Robert Smithson here to build the Spiral Jetty, also called out to Simpson, who 30 years ago carried out some of his ideas here. Now, he’s returned to exhibit many of the projects he’s done in the intervening years, which are on display at the Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery, on the campus at Weber State in Ogden through November 5.
Constructs for the Anthropocene includes around 50 examples of his two principle modes of work, which are closely related in conception and vary primarily in size. He’s been successful in winning a great many public commissions, which he explains have several virtues, including ready funding, broad exposure, and long-term visibility — which, with his characteristic wry humor, Buster translates as “you don’t have to take them back to the studio.” Many Utahns will recognize one of these works, a 35-foot tall stainless steel sculpture outside of the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building, down the street from the Leonardo. Titled “Presence,” it resembles a three-story column comprised of 48 blade-like elements, which on closer examination reproduces a human profile: in fact, the face of one of Salt Lake’s safety professionals, photographed and scanned during the design process. Comparing the two sides visible from any point of view will reveal individual differences, while in the center the column is transparent, allowing a view through to the present environment.
Simpson’s other approach, though there is no cut-and-dried dividing line between the two, is what’s variously known as “studio” or “gallery” art. These autonomous works are often inspired by found objects, though those generally undergo considerable revision and what might be called polishing. The pathway from studio to site location is open in both directions, as when sandbags prepared to call public attention to the climate change responsible for flooding find their way into studio pieces, or ceramic plates stained with effluent (and then safely glazed) for a public awareness dinner are further treated and mounted on gallery walls.
This exploitation or salvage of everyday materials has become part of the vocabulary of many of today’s artists, typically to invoke the passage of time or the experience of memory. For an artist like Simpson, who desires his public to take his lessons to heart, the use of familiar materials serves a greater, more pressing function, in that it connects the audience, and indeed the individual viewer, more directly to the environment, and hence to its challenges. “This story isn’t abstract or remote,” says a man hole cover with an image of a fish that may seem remote. Even more, a compound work like “Migration Blockage” tells a whole story, in which the artist combines a promotional photo of a hydroelectric river dam with two stainless steel images of salmon confronting it, a diffraction grating that turns the black and white image of the brutal dam into a rainbow where it is reflected in the water, and topping it off, a real solar panel that suggests an available alternative that doesn’t decimate the fish population.
In case it isn’t already apparent, artists like Simpson generally get by on small budgets — or no budget beyond help from his friends. He has to be resourceful, as when he began showing his wading boots, suitable annotated, as evidence of the depth of water his flood awareness projects have required him to navigate. Even as the powerful want to be associated with such good works, the potential loss of income from the successful completion of certain projects prevents carrying them out. In one case, a tunnel through downtown Seattle was to be abandoned, and developers lost no time in making plans to fill it in and build on the miles of newly available sites. Simpson was part of a group that proposed removing the tunnel but, instead of wasting the material needed to fill it in, they proposed in essence a reversal of New York City’s enormously popular High Line. This would be an open pedestrian channel below the noise and commotion of the city; a park with all the amenities of a green zone, and unique advantages to boot. Unfortunately, this brilliant design was unable, or at the very least came too late, to stop the process already under way. Utah residents who were paying attention to the recent prison move may appreciate how frustrated citizens felt that, once again, powerful interests had chosen their vision over what the affected residents wanted.
I didn’t ask Buster Simpson what percentage of his projects ended up on the studio floor and how many he feels succeeded. As he showed off current pictures of a project I saw him commence thirty years, a “nurse tree” meant to demonstrate how forests can be swiftly and appropriately restored, and saw how the plot he was provided has come thrillingly to life, looming over the empty pavement that surrounds it, it became apparent that Simpson has made of his life a stunning response to those who would damage or even destroy our environment, our landscape, our very biosphere. It’s one that has made him a happy man, even as it’s made those whose life he has touched feel less isolated, less alienated, and more a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s something we can all ask of art.
Buster Simpson: Constructs for the Anthropocene, Shaw Gallery, Weber State University, Ogden, through Nov. 5. Simpson presented an artist talk at the exhibition on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Geoff Wichert objects to the term critic. He would rather be thought of as a advocate on behalf of those he writes about.