Three Swarm Gallery artists find us environmentally problematic.

Ambiguity, beauty, and irony characterize the environmentally themed
show, Natural Selection, and a related installation. Vaughan Bell’s
ecological concerns are serious, but her conceptual sculptures embrace
absurdism. The Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval, who walked a
ribbon-leashed pet lobster in 1840s Paris, was apparently the
inspiration for Bell’s “Surrogate Mountain (Mountain for City).” The
sculptures are pizza-size scale models (at 1:30,000) of Mt. Rainier in
cast paper mounted on wooden chassis outfitted with wheels and a leash.
Bell invited visitors at a previous show to “take one for a test walk.”
Resembling papier-mâché volcanoes, starch-stiffened
dishtowels, horseshoe crabs, or desiccated octopi, they evoke humor and
pathos rather than awe at nature’s grandeur. Some of these mountains
are outfitted with speakers emitting whale cries and mounted low on the
wall: clouds echolocating or singing. Adoptable “Pocket Biospheres”
containing plants, water, and tiny organisms, and house-shaped terraria
into which you can insert your head also mock our cuckoo attempts to
possess (or be possessed by) nature. Remember the old peasant in Woody
Allen’s Love and Death, proud of his little piece of land?

Josh Keyes’ paintings are more ambiguous. Painted impeccably in a
realistic illustrational style, they depict dioramas or
terraria/aquaria (the painting’s edges coincide with the glass corners)
in which wild animals pose amid overgrown verdure or transparent
pale-blue flood waters; they’re scenes of ecological collapse and
renewal from which, having abandoned their traffic signs and
graffiti-covered statuary, humans are absent. In “Evacuation I,” a stag
stands submerged, carrying on his back and in his antlers passenger
raccoons and birds, while fish swim above the waving grasses past a
fire hydrant.  In “Sowing,” a buffalo ambles down a striped slab
of highway, grass sprouting up in its tracks, as if reclaiming the
interstate-paved Great Plains. While Keyes has personal associations
with the animals, his critters never become human surrogates for us, as
they do in Landseer, Delacroix, Stubbs, or Marc. They remain emblems of
species that somehow coexist without eating each other in these
post-human landscape dioramas, Peaceable Kingdoms (1:48 scale or so)
without people, though made in the hominid style.

Reenie Charriere’s installation Washed Up comprises scavenged
Oakland Estuary flotsam placed into Ziploc bags half-filled with dyed
water and assembled into a tree-like structure, at the foot of which
surf continually laps (in a surprisingly convincing DVD projection with
sound). It suggests those ancient colonial animals, jellyfish, and
their upstart simulacra, plastic bags, now rotating slowly clockwise in
a Sargasso Sea, Texas-size or larger, between California and Hawaii.
Natural Selection runs through September 13 at Swarm Gallery (560-2nd
St., Oakland).
or 510-839-2787.


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