Escapism or activism? Should a work provide respite from pertinent problems, or is it art’s duty to provide commentary on these political and social issues? More and more, this seems to be the debate among artists and patrons.
While it’s limiting to think that the two approaches are mutually exclusive, the conversation surrounding them seems to have grown louder in recent years. The problems of the world have grown louder, too, not least the ever-approaching specter of climate change. How is escapist art possible when its subject concerns something that none of us can escape?
“A Quick and Tragic Thaw,” the latest exhibit at UVA’s Ruffin Gallery, seeks to find some middle ground. Co-creator Gabrielle Russomagno says the climate- themed collection of artwork is intended to be a “meditation on something that might feel like loss…regardless of pedagogy and political paradigms.”
Russomagno and her artistic partner Yvonne Love, have been concerned with climate change since their first collaboration over a decade ago, when the two created an exhibition on global warming. “A Quick and Tragic Thaw” certainly feels like the culmination of many years of work and thinking—their art was informed by the research of Howard Epstein, a UVA environmental science professor who studies the effects of climate change.
This added scholarly element compounds the sense of collaboration. Liza Pittard, visiting artist coordinator for the UVA Arts department, calls it “bridging the arts and sciences in an almost poetic way.” “UVA is a research institution,” she says. “How can we get other people involved?”
If the crowd present on the exhibit’s opening night is any indication, then “A Quick and Tragic Thaw” has already left a considerable impression. The single, cubelike room it occupies was overflowing with spectators.
The largest portion of the exhibition is a re-creation of Greenland’s shifting, shrinking glaciers done in black sand and porcelain—a stark dark and light that comprises much of the room’s color scheme. Love and Russomagno have given it the fitting label “Patterned Ground.” The porcelain analogues for ice contain intricate valleys and divots, and the black sand holds a network of delicate grooves. It’s eerily soothing to look at, hypnotic almost to the point that the viewer forgets the dire subject matter.
On the far wall, “Plastic Projections” provides a burst of color to the muted room. Present and future predicted maps of the Arctic are arrayed in an oblong shape, each of them on plastic that has been warped by heat into new forms. Close inspection is required to realize that they are maps at all—from a distance, they resemble flowers in the process of opening and closing.
This uneasy balance of extremes—finding beautiful ways to represent terrible things, almost to the point of obfuscation—is present in all of the exhibition’s artwork, and it brings to mind the ongoing debate of escapism versus engagement. Which is being practiced here? After all, Love and Russomagno’s work is not explicitly giving a call to action.
The abstract explaining “A Quick and Tragic Thaw,” says that the artworks are meant to “emphasize connections…between indisputable data and the conceit of how we choose to live.” The result is plainly gorgeous but only quietly upsetting, what Pittard calls a “passive political statement.”
Another juxtaposition here is the artists’ differing reasons for creating a series of works about climate change. Love, whose father was a naturalist, approaches it from a scientific view. “Observation was a huge part of my upbringing…I was hearing about the negative human impact on the environment from a very early age.”
Love’s observational skills have given her an intimate understanding of how humans can affect their surroundings. “I’m seeing the effects in my own backyard, and it’s been really scary.”
Russomagno, by her own admission, is “totally urban.” She contrasts her upbringing to Love’s, saying that although she wasn’t surrounded by the natural world, she could still “notice if people were in despair, because I was surrounded by a bajillion of them.”
The result of these distinct points of view is a representation of climate change that not only connects the personal and political but also the universal. On the wall labeled “Transfer and Pierce,” a collection of drawings on carbon paper, the sketch of a single Arctic individual feels perfectly in place next to large-scale renderings of his home.
Love and Russomagno recognize that this is a problem that affects all of us. They wanted to avoid the “screaming, politicized voices,” as Russomagno puts it, and reach something more transcendent. “There’s something about loss and beauty combined that I think stirs everyone’s soul,” she says. “Maybe if the conversation through art activates that in someone, then we’ve done our work.”
“Plastic Projections” is one of the works on view in the climate change-focused “A Quick and Tragic Thaw” at UVA’s Ruffin Gallery through October 18.