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Mary Mattingly's "Waterpod Economies"

Two UB Art Gallery exhibits track our impact on the waters and water's impact on us

Two art exhibits about environmental issues just opened at the UB art gallery on the North campus: one specifically local, about the waters of Ellicott Creek a five-minute hike from the gallery; the other about global economic and environmental issues, but with substantial local implications.

And both exhibits feature time-based components, a dimension of reality that doesn’t always get into gallery shows.

The global exhibit, called Precious Cargo, includes installations by a cadre of artists and environmental groups, headed for purposes of this exhibit by Paul Lloyd Sargent, part of whose own installation at the moment consists of a large pile of trash in the middle of the gallery floor.

Another part consists of a wall display of navigational maps of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, which he calls “an environmental as well as an economic disaster.”

Buffalo folk know well how it was an economic disaster, at least locally, essentially eliminating Buffalo as a transportation link—the basis of the local economy when we had one—between the East Coast and Midwest.

Stella Marrs' "Shopping Cart Victory Gardens"
Alberto Rey's "Biological Regionalism: Ellicott Creek, Amherst, New York, I-III"

As for environmental disaster, the seaway introduced a host of invasive species into the Great Lakes system, the most prominent of these being the zebra mussel, which came in the ballast water of ocean-going vessels that was then dumped into the lake waters.

While at the other end of the Great Lakes, there’s the environmental calamity happening at the moment of the voracious carp species making its way into Lake Michigan via the connection to the Mississippi River through the Chicago River—the river that has been made to flow the wrong way—and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

And the pile of trash? Over the run of the exhibit, that’s to be transformed into a huge floor map of sorts of the Great Lakes system, by Sargent and any volunteers who would like to help out.

Part of the reason for the process-based project would seem to be to convey that remediation of environmental problems is only achieved over time and with significant community participation (as opposed to such “instantaneous” creations as the St. Lawrence Seaway and the engineered connection of Lake Michigan with the Mississippi).

Other installations address other issues in other ways. One offers take-home maps illustrating how and where we get electricity, the environmental degradation this causes under present practices, and possible better ways of going about the matter.

Alex Young takes on housing, but his installation has a comic/sardonic flavor to the point that it’s hard to tell what might or might not be tongue-in-cheek. It is called World Shaving, and part of it looks like a mix of an old Gillette razor blades ad and a Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

It makes the judicious point that “cities, not nations, are the proper unit of macroeconomic analysis.” On the other hand, it seems to be pushing generally discredited super-multi-unit (à la Le Corbusier) housing ideas. Maybe just for the sake of argument (which is useful, too).

The Ellicott Creek exhibit, called Biological Realism, is by Fredonia artist Alberto Rey and features three videos shot from underwater in the creek, and two paintings, one a kind of fisherman’s view of the creek and surrounding foliage, the other of a lunker largemouth bass that also shows up in one of the videos.

Who knew that such a fish swam in humble Ellicott Creek, so much degraded over the past century or so?

An objective of the show is to educate the local populace about the environment so near at hand it can go unnoticed. An explanatory posting with the show says that Ellicott Creek is habitat for species including brown trout, rainbow trout, northern pike, and smallmouth and largemouth bass, at least downstream of the falls in Williamsville.

The videos show a constant swirl of particulates in the water—what looks like serious pollution but is really just natural materials stirred up from the creek bottom by the force of the rushing water, Rey said at the opening. He noted that at least the most blatant polluting activities, such as discharge of raw sewage into the creek, have been outlawed and essentially eliminated since the 1960s.

The oil paintings have art history references ranging from French impressionism—in the stipple technique prominent in both pictures—to Hudson River School, to field-and-stream-type illustrations.

But with differences. Hudson River School paintings were intended to inform a remote audience about a pristine natural environment. These inform about a natural environment in a precarious way due to constant threat of incursion by the audience.

And the fish painting seems to provide a more genuine underwater view—more dark and murky—than field-and-stream-type pictures usually present, in their focus on the fish, to entice sport fishermen, not so much on the fishy environment.

A series of lectures is scheduled in conjunction with each exhibit. And in conjunction with the Precious Cargo exhibit, a film screening and “time warp performance” at Hallwalls. Dates and details for these events, and times when Paul Lloyd Sargent will be constructing the floor map, and anyone interested can participate, or just observe, are on the gallery website

Both exhibits continue through May 15.

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