Friday, July 28, 2006

Deborah Simon

A month ago, the artist Deborah Simon and I wandered through the American Museum of Natural History. We both adore the museum and were excited to be there. After admiring the impressive dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals, we rounded a corner and found ourselves in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. Though by no means dismissive of anthropology, Deborah and I share a bias for all things zoological, and our pace quickened accordingly. We paused, though, to admire a group of striking ceremonial masks suspended in a vitrine. With a smile, Deborah remarked, “I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I’m most attracted to the animal masks.”

As regular readers know, I've been writing profiles of emerging artists for the now defunct (or perhaps hibernating) ezine, Scrawled. The piece that follows, an essay about Deborah Simon's paintings, was scheduled to run in Scrawled's June 2006 issue, but the publication never materialized.


Deborah Simon
"Memento mori: Ocelot and ocelot skeleton"
Oil on wood
36 x 68 inches

“If I had to tell what the world is for me
I would take a hamster or a hedgehog or a mole
And place him in a theater seat one evening
And, bringing my ear close to his humid snout,
Would listen to what he says about the spotlights,
Sounds of the music, and movements of the dance.”
-Czeslaw Milosz

Reading Milosz's lovely poem, I picture the poet hunched over, head cocked so as to position his ear close to a confused, sausage-shaped insectivore. The man concentrates on the light, rapid breathing and the occasional scritch of the mole’s long claws on the seat’s velvet lining. The little burrower tentatively senses its surroundings but remains totally unprepared – and unable - to describe the auditorium. Here, in so vast a space, it is terrified. It would prefer to be elsewhere, digging in substrate for an earthworm or a tasty grub.

But most readers of the above poem will imagine a very different mole, a chatty, colorful fellow wearing soda bottle spectacles who sits upright in the theater seat, his hands just achieving the armrests. In honor of his famous Disney relative, we might call this cartoon caricature Mickey Mole.

The anthropomorphized mole is the more popular of the two. Unfortunately, the Mickey Mole rendering undermines Milosz’s point. The poem is moving only if the poet relates to the animal as exactly that, an animal. He must overcome the temptation to project human qualities onto the creature. Only diligent observation of the “real” organism, rather than the caricature, will equip the poet “to tell what the world is for” him. Careful “listening” to the displaced animal on the theater seat reminds the poet that he, too, is animal, representative of just one species among many. Thus, the “essential conditions of life”(1) are recognized: human nature is nature.

But today we live in an age of mediated interaction. It is increasingly difficult to perceive a mole as a mole. The world’s rural population is dwindling and the urban experience of wilderness and wildlife revolves around television, animated features, photographs published in National Geographic, and the bars and reinforced plexi-glass of zoo enclosures. In his 1980 essay, “Why Look At Animals?,” John Berger critiqued this contemporary relationship (or lack thereof), focusing particularly on the “imperfectly-met gaze.” Just as servants were once prohibited from making eye contact with aristocratic employers, so too is meaningful ocular exchange between animal and human avoided. Animals are not aware of this prohibition. As a result, it is the supposedly superior party that must ignore, pillory or avoid their gaze. Berger argues that humans possess animals by visual means; we look at them, but do not allow the animal to look back “across ignorance and fear.” The human peering through a viewfinder objectifies the animal, reducing it to an icon.(2)

Zoos make this objectification more explicit; visitors feel superior to the caged creatures, often literally looking down on them. In both examples, the scalae naturae is made manifest; man is granted dominion over the beasts. Berger writes, “The fact that [the animals] can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them.”(3)

But what of painting? Animals are central to the work of innumerable contemporary artists(4), but the majority of these paintings betray an indifference to natural history and the corporeal nature of the animal represented. The otters, bears and tigers that populate these pictures are crudely rendered in the favored style of the day – broad, slapdash brush strokes and bold, electric color – and they are removed from their natural habitat or, if not, their habitat is turned into a world of flat, cartoon significance. These are not animals, but shallow proxies more closely related to stuffed toys and Saturday morning cartoons. As such, they are given license to look back at the viewer; their fiction has made them impotent.

Wildlife art, a more "realistic" - if sometimes naïve and much maligned - genre, is as popular today as it was a century ago. Susan Orlean wrote that to be good at taxidermy you “have to be a little bit of a zoology nerd” and “you have to love animals.”(5) The same requisites could be applied to wildlife art. The best artists of this kind celebrate the animal through naturalistic depiction.(6) Though technical virtuosity and compositional sensibility varies greatly, all wildlife painting is in the business of illustrating reality and, in doing so, of honoring the animal pictured. Curiously, very little wildlife art depicts an animal (or animals) making eye contact with the viewer.(7) As with television wildlife documentary and magazine photographs, the gaze remains one-sided; even in admiration, man possesses the animal.

Deborah Simon
"Phoca vitulina: Harbor seals under pack ice"
Oil on wood
66 x 48 inches

Deborah Simon claims she “has no interest in traditional wildlife painting.” To be sure, her paintings and sculptures can not be fairly classified as wildlife art, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, but she does share the desire of wildlife artists to present the animal as dignified and real. The animals she paints are not anthropomorphized; they exist on their own terms and the viewer has no choice but to relate to them as such. Simon’s work is distinguished, however, by the met gaze, the completed ocular exchange John Berger eulogized in “Why Look At Animals?”.

In Simon's Memento Mori series, animals either look directly at the viewer, as in “Enhydra lutris: Sea Otter Raft” and “Phoca vitulina: Harbor Seals Under Pack Ice,” or confront their own, skeletal visage, as in “Memento mori: Ocelot and ocelot skeleton” In both cases, the potency of the visual exchange is restored. Gone is "Mr. Otter," the cute and cuddly companion. Present, instead, is the powerful and curious Enhydra lutris, consumer of crabs, fish and molluscs. To lock eyes with this sea otter is to possess the animal, but also to be possessed. This two-way gaze allows for the erasure of both individual and special (as in "species") autonomy. Furthermore, the skeletal apparitions that surround the painted otter are reminders of its mortality and, in turn, of our own. The exchange provides a one-two punch. “You, too, are animal," the paintings say. "You, like me, will die.”

Deborah Simon
"Enhydra lutris: Sea Otter Raft"
Oil on wood
35 x 48 inches

Were we to actually have this encounter with a sea otter, in the cold, coastal waters of the northern Pacific, it would be brief. For a moment we lock eyes with the animal and stare transfixed. Then, abruptly, the otter returns his attention to devouring the abalone grasped in his dexterous paws. Because the eye contact is fleeting, its significance is more likely recognized by those of us who already question the scalae naturae. Simon’s painting, by contrast, grants the viewer no release; both the otter and its skeletal counterparts stare us down, unrelentingly. (“One of us. One of us.") Even Berger’s urbanite, that lover of Disney, is left with no recourse; he must confront the fragility of self and see in himself the “other.” What Simon’s work accomplishes, then, is rare and wonderful. In celebrating other species, she humanizes our own.

“Tired from understanding
life, the animals approach man
to be mystified.”

-from “3 Poems,” by Les Murray

Deborah Simon
Memento Mori: Red Squirrel and Skeleton"
Oil on wood
31 x 23 inches


(1) John Dewey, “The Live Creature,” Art As Experience, 1934

(2) “That’s why a couple of weeks out in Nature doesn’t make it anymore…you will virtualize everything you encounter anyway, all by yourself. You won’t see wolves, you’ll see ‘wolves.’ You’ll be murmuring to yourself, at some level, ‘Wow, look, a real wolf, not in a cage, not on TV, I can’t believe it.’ That’s right, you can’t. Natural things have become their own icons.”
-Thomas de Zengotita, “The Numbing of the American Mind,” Harper’s Magazine, April 2002

(3) John Berger, “Why Look At Animals?”, About Looking, 1980

(4) Contemporary artworks concerned with ecology, natural history, and zoology are, more often than not, American in origin and, if not, they are almost always Western. There are many different arguments as to why this is so, but the answer, I feel, is bound to the unique relationship early Americans – and I’m thinking of both Native Americans and the European settlers – had with the expansive wilderness around them. The concept of “wilderness” is borne of Romanticism and colonialism and, what's more, is limited to those countries/regions with vast, undeveloped tracts: North America, Australia, Africa, eastern Russia. As much as I embrace it myself, wilderness is a Romantic, fraught ideal, one equally capable of protecting and harming the species that live away from human settlement. Increasingly, this Romantic idealization of the "wild" is spreading into the East, via China and Indonesia, but the concept there remains an introduced one.

(5) Susan Orlean, “Lifelike”, The New Yorker

(6) Walton Ford, Alexis Rockman and their ilk are not of this camp, although some art world cognoscenti may disagree. This isn't to say that Ford and Rockman aren't deeply invested in their subject matter (wildlife, natural history, ecology), but rather that their work is as grounded in satire and critique as it is in celebration and admiration.

(7) When eye contact is made, the artist is often painting what I'll call the “dramatic encounter.” For example, an angry bull African elephant (Loxodonta africana) charging the viewer or a Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) interrupted mid-meal.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Gallery Report, 07/19/2006

It's never bad for an artist to have a lot on his plate, but for a compulsive planner like myself, a mess of deadlines and events can become rather daunting. To cope with the commitments and the promises, I a) make myself scarce on the social scene and b) make lots of lists. This past Wednesday I headed off to Chelsea with a lineup of shows in hand. I usually prefer to snake east and west through the gallery district, wandering in and out of galleries at whatever pace I feel appropriate. Wednesday, however, more closely resembled a surgical strike; there could be no distraction, no collateral damage. I started at 28th Street and made my way south, hitting only the thirteen spaces on the docket, narrowed down from twenty-seven shows of possible interest. It was laughable - I couldn't help but chuckle at myself as I hustled down the sidewalk, all business-like - but necessary. I had alloted only two and a half hours for art contemplation and it was tough enough to fit in the thirteen shows.

I must admit to some rubber-necking. It proved impossible to walk into a gallery building without peeking into *gasp* unlisted spaces. Whether reacting to works included in the thirteen targeted shows or the incidental pop-ins, one question kept cropping up: What's with all the "lazy" art? Many, if not most, of the paintings I viewed included self-consciously crude mark-making and muddy washes. Much of the sculpture appeared physically weak and haphazardly fashioned, in some cases already showing signs of damage. The videos were rough-hewn collages, not markedly distinct from the toss-off Flash sketches precocious teens make and upload onto YouTube. Have we reached a point where artists feel the need to highlight their existential doubt by sabotaging their technique, or is this instead indicative of a real decline in craft and an increase in carelessness? Are young artists responding to fleeting celebrity and the culture of expected obsolescence by making work that appears temporal or even disposable, or are they just more humble than their predecessors? The reasons are surely many, but whatever the justification, a lot of what I saw looked plain shoddy.

At the other end of spectrum are those young artists who have embraced technique, but have few, if any, good ideas. Though not as common as their slacker counterparts, they show in good number. Chad Marshall's show of large oil paintings at Priska C. Juschka Fine Art is representative of this group. To some extent, I admire Marshall's painting, but his grotesque, angst-ridden figures (presented on backgrounds of flat color, no less) remind me of the sort of thoughtless, fashion advertisement inspired figure painting so many of us produced when we were starting undergrad. This critique is harsh - perhaps too much so - but my vitriol is the product of my feeling the artist capable of much better work. There is promise in these works, particularly in Marshall's attractive works on paper.

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Chad Marshall
"Painting #6"
Oil and flashe on MDF
24 x 48 inches

Marshall's was one of the few solo efforts I saw visited on Wednesday. Summer, after all, is the season of the group show. With one or two exceptions, I wasn't impressed with the curatorial thrust of the shows I visited and I've been skeptical of most every show description I've see online or in print. This is not to suggest that the included artwork is poor, only that the themes and groupings seem consistently arbitrary, if not patently absurd and unnecessary.

Case in point: "Tabletop," the exhibition on display at Josee Bienvenu Gallery. All works in the show, some of which are very nice, are placed on low tables, under glass. The press release justifies the unusual presentation in two ways. Firstly, we should all take a load off. "The world deserves a break. A table and chair help resist the summer heat in invitation to slow down and take a seat." Fair enough, I suppose, but I'm not sold. Secondly, the table top approach allows viewers to experience the artwork as the creators do. "...a show of horizontal drawings, the negation of the tablecloth. Passing from table to table, one experiences the intimate relationship between the paper and the artist as the works are seen from the perspective they were made at." OK, even if this is true for the majority of the included artists - many produced work specifically for "Tabletop" - why display the work in this way? It does nothing to enhance the drawings and paintings. Why not present the same group of artists without the "clever" twist? As is, I feel like a Hollywood producer hearing a gimmicky pitch. It stinks. Let the pictures do the talking, not some half-baked curatorial umbrella.

Over at Galeria Ramis Barquet, the curators dubbed their ill-considered effort "Better Than Sex, Better Than Disneyland." Explaining their choice of title, the press release reads, "The wide gamma of works in [the exhibition] recreate the pleasure that the artists attain from completing a simple musical or drawing exercise, and therefore elicit an immediate response from the viewer." What's with the psycho-sexual silliness? Doesn't
all artwork "elicit an immediate response from the viewer," even if it's only a bored shrug?

Although I thought little of the exhibition overall, I was drawn to the watercolors of Alejandra Alarcon, a Bolivian born artist living in Mexico City. Her work - sexualized, bloody riffs on the "Little Red Riding Hood" story - fit the show's theme better than that of her counterparts. Two pieces were particularly captivating. I would have liked to include images of "Caperucita con abrigo de piel, sangre y barriga" ("Little Red Riding Hood with fur coat, blood and belly") and
"Capa con colas de lobo," ("Cape with wolf tails") but, unfortunately, I could not locate these works online.


Sara Meltzer: With discouraging daily news from the Middle East and unusual, monsoon-like conditions affecting the tri-state area, I find myself using two of my father's favorite words, bleak and melancholy, more frequently as of late. Standing outside a bar on Tuesday night, three sheets to the wind, a friend demanded to know why educated Americans aren't up in arms, actively engaging policy and community. A passerby heard her
query and responded, lifting his arms above his head as he laughed, "See. I am up in arms. I'm up in arms!" My friend looked back at me, exasperated. "Seriously. Why aren't we?"

The press release for "Prevailing Climate," the summer group show at Sara Meltzer Gallery, tells visitors that the show "examines the tragedy, fear and distrust that connects our history, politics, consumerism and mass media." For the most part, curators Rachel Gugelberger and Jeffrey Walkowiak succeed, although the exhibition provokes in me the same resigned, baffled shrug my friend's drunken question did. It's too easy to attribute western apathy to the decline of the American Empire - although the liberal rhetoricians' parallels between the United States and Rome are apt - and it's undeniably selfish to ignore the troubling circumstances altogether. Most of us toil away somewhere in the middle, muttering about the bleak outlook, riding bikes in symbolic protest, writing letters to politicians, but generally feeling as though things are out of our hands. Why get up in arms if there is nothing to lift, or if the opposition is a phantom?

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Karina Aguilera Skvirsky
Running time: 4:30 minutes
Edition 1 of 5

An answer of sorts can be found in Karina Aguilera Skvirsky's video, "Blowback." Although the piece can be filed under the Flash collage aesthetic I grumble about above, Skvirsky manages to do a lot with very little. The hypnotic video is four and a half minutes long, but it seems much shorter (always a good sign). On screen, figures appear in brief, clipped loops, taking a few steps toward you before jerking back to what appears to be their original position. Almost
imperceptibly, though, these figures approach, in a cut-and-paste version of "for every three steps forward, two steps back." As the figures near, the landscape grows darker and more menacing, an effect complimented by the accompanying music. Eventually, the background is blocked from view by the now pixelated, fractured figures. They are upon us. The soundtrack bangs and grates. We've been consumed, assimilated, obliterated. To black. The video starts over...and again, I'm hypnotized.

"Blowback" serves as a wake-up call of sorts, a plea for all to participate rather than merely observe. If we do nothing - if we just watch the machinations from our couches - we will all fall victim to the darkening tide. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom." And apathy is a form of bondage.

I later searched for "Blowback" on YouTube. Unfortunately, I couldn't find it. I wish more video artists would take advantage of the incredible distribution resource presented by the web. The DVD of "Blowback" may or may not sell to some wealthy collector who can gamble on an investment, but what of the thousands of media hungry minds clicking through YouTube every day? Why not turn video art into viral video?

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Joy Garnett
"Plume 2 (Strange Weather series)"
Oil on canvas
26 x 46 inches

The rest of "Prevailing Climate" is relatively strong. Works by Joan Linder, Joy Garnett, Jason Middlebrook and Anna von Mertens standout. Attractive - indeed, almost decorative - the two oil paintings included by Garnett are deceptive. Her subject matter, garnered from online news media, is associated with warfare, be it images of prisoners, war machines, military officers or torn landscapes. The two pieces included in "Prevailing Climate" belong to this last group. Calling to mind work by the Romantic painters, Turner and Friedrich, Garnett's burning, red-and-orange vistas are as disturbing as they are beautiful. In this sense, they are sublime, in the traditional sense, inspiring awe and a little fear. Looking at the work, particularly the smaller of the two, "Plume 2 (Strange Weather Series)," I find myself wondering what effect the super abundance of such images in our media has on our moral response. Have we, as a society, learned to cope by abstracting these violent, troubling scenes, ignoring the documented wrongs by treating them as we do a friend's postcard from abroad?

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Jason Middlebrook
"How the West Was Won"
mixed media on paper
46 X 80 inches

Jason Middlebrook's painting, "How the West Was Won," is sprawling, raw and ambitious, if a little obvious. The gradual descent in elevation, from the bison pictured on the tall plateau to the convenience store in the lower-right of the painting, needs no explanation, but Middlebrook's strong sense of color carries the painting. Although I liked the piece, I feel much of Middlebrook's work is superior.


Morgan Lehman: "Flight Plan" initially feels of a piece - due to the thoughtful presentation, the viewer flows comfortably from work to work in this attractive gallery space - but the exhibition never takes off as a cohesive whole. Happily, there are enough individual successes to satisfy. The wording of the press release suggests participating artists supplied the gallery with work specifically produced for the show: "Each artist brings his/her own interpretation to the show's name sake, with some literally addressing the concept of flight, while others explore the metaphoric possibilities of the subject." Jeffrey Milstein is representative of the literal camp; he contributes four handsome, straightforward photographs of airplanes seen from below. Two pleasing ink and watercolor works by painter Franklin Evans, on the other hand, are only loosely connected to the exhibition's theme. To make pegs fit, I'll call these colorful, abstract works "flights of fancy." They suggest a process comprised of sequential reactions to what came before; constructed in this episodic manner, they are a painter's picaresque.

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Paul Villinski
Found aluminum, wire, lead, soot
48 inch diameter, 52 elements, Variable edition of 3

I was most intrigued by the work of Amy Ross and Paul Villinski. Both artists include pieces that border on the precious. Villinski's "Departure," a circular grouping of 52 delicate, wall-mounted butterflies, risks being dismissed as a one-note, kitsch celebration of reincarnation or transformation. But spend a few moments with the piece and you just might find yourself asking what's wrong with a little peace, love and understanding. Villinski cuts butterflies of different shapes and sizes out of flattened, aluminum beer cans and paints these recyclable insects in an uneven black wash. A close look reveals that Villinski's favored brands - or at least the cans he collects most often - are Coors Light and Tecate. I'm only too happy to see these watered-down beers turned into art that shamelessly embraces simple, beautiful gestures.

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Amy Ross
"Birdshroom #22"
Watercolor on paper
20 x 17 inches

Amy Ross creates delicate watercolors of hybrid bird-mushrooms, all of which come precariously close to cute irrelevance. In fact, upon first consideration, I responded negatively, categorizing Ross as an artist who wants to produce naturalistic images, but feels compelled to morph and tweak her subjects just enough to be considered distinct from - and presumably superior to - traditional natural history illustration. Who knows? This might be the case...but I doubt it. Admiring "Amanita Tanager #2" and "Stropharia verdin," the strongest of the pieces, I accepted the work at face value; these are well-crafted, lovely renderings of species one might discover in Wonderland. They aren't the most inspired paintings I saw on Wednesday, but they possess a sincere integrity largely absent in the work of young, contemporary artists.

Note: Despite the help of Morgan Lehman staff and some determined Internet trawling, I can't supply an image of either of the two Ross paintings mentioned above. Instead, I've pictured another of the works on display in "Flight Plan."


RARE: I'm not sure how I feel about galleries including the curator's name in the exhibition title. "Diamonds Cut Diamonds: Curated by Johnston Foster," the group sculpture show at RARE, is the first example I've come across, and I'm tempted to call the choice arrogant, but questions about the nature of the curator's role generate a lot of ink these days - artist or academic; guiding light or cataloger - and, to some extent, it seems
sensible to marquee the name. (What's more, Foster is a working artist who exhibits at RARE. The gallery may just be taking advantage of an opportunity to further promote one of it's own.)

Foster has assembled a group of five emerging sculptors who all use "mundane materials." Kate Horne's animated horse heads, fashioned out of paper grocery bags and other miscellany, are whimsical enough, but fleeting, and Morgan Herrin's "untitled (Reclining Woman)," carved out of polystyrene and foam, has me fretting about Herrin's use of a respirator when I should be considering the art. More successful are Ryan Kitson's witty works - his "Tusk
Sculpture" is at once lovely and biting - and Dave Choi's clusterfuck creations.

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Dave Choi
Plexiglas, epoxy, hot glue, foam, mixed media
56 x 88 x 32 inches

I want to like Choi's work more than I do. Exuberant, grotesque and shockingly colorful, his sculptures will please most any fan of Industrial Plastics (the mecca of kitsch, on Canal Street, in NYC) but their synthetic makeup can be a bit distracting. "Jumbo," the best of the bunch, is a celebration of pulsing life, at once calling to mind Jonah and the whale, Russian dolls, leeches, Ridley Scott's Alien, and a number of other associations, but the shiny, dead materials betray the organic feel of the beast. This is stilled life; I'm left cold. Still, Choi could do terrific things. He's close already.

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Jeff Lutonsky
"Nowhere Road (Ramblin' Fever)"
Magic marker and pencil on paper
30 x 40 inches

In the back room of RARE, painter Jeff Lutonsky presents "Ain't Livin' Long Like This," a group of magic marker and pencil drawings celebrating the sub-cultures of NASCAR and the rodeo. All well and good - "Business and Pleasure" and "Slippers" are both nicely worked drawings - but I'm thrown by the press release. "Confronting the strict stereotypes attached to the 'red neck' ideal, the viewer ultimately finds beauty and peace in the toughness of rural living." Um, this ain't necessarily rural living and it certainly ain't "tough." Having grown up in a Virginian town of ninety-nine people, I'm familiar with the culture of rural areas, and the iconographic images Lutonsky offers are more closely associated with southern suburban sprawl. The most representative work, and the best of the bunch, is
"Nowhere Road (Ramblin' Fever)," but this road isn't nowhere. The road sign gives away the location as a particularly ugly stretch of I-64's loop around Richmond, Virginia, an area I associate more with WalMarts and strip malls than hardscrabble, rural life.


Yancey Richardson Gallery: One gets the sense that the folks behind "Arcadia" wanted to present a very general survey of nature-themed artwork, but felt compelled to provide a more specific focus. Thus, they describe the exhibition as one in which "artists present the relationship between nature and man as either idyllic, threatening or diminished." This is open-ended, to say the least; they might as well write "good, bad or
ambivalent," which pretty much covers all the bases and brings us back to square one. Whatever my rather petty faults with the gallery's word choice, I had high hopes for the exhibition. Sadly, the show is something of a dud overall, not because the included work is bad, per se, but because it is too similar. Ten minutes after having left the space, I had forgotten most of what I'd seen.

David Spero and Joel Sternfeld, both photographers I respect, include works that are lost among the many pleasant landscapes on display. One could argue that this betrays a failing of their pictures, but in this instance I feel it says more about a group exhibition that drowns in sameness. Anthony Goicolea, whose attractive drawings and paintings are captivating, here includes a boys-back-to-nature photograph that is imminently forgettable and
rather obvious (in case there is any doubt, the press release name drops Lord of the Flies).

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Clare Richardson
"Sylvan, Untitled XX"
Chromogenic print, Edition of 9
24 x 30 inches

Clare Richardson's photograph, "Slyvan," is used on the show's promotional material. A young field worker is pictured from the back, pitchfork slung over his shoulder, as he contemplates a rolling, bucolic European landscape. Looking at the picture, I feel a reactionary longing, a la Thoreau. Ah, the simpler life - hard, manual labor, good sleep and few questions - and a sustainable relationship with land, flora and fauna: is this not better than today's destructive, anxiety-ridden capitalist mess? This is Romanticism at it's most effective and, as such, it borders on propaganda. Perhaps this is why I couldn't imagine living with the print; it celebrates an uncomplicated, beautiful lie.

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Jeff Whetstone
"Two Boys and Water Snake"
Gelatin silver print, Edition of 5
24 x 30 inches

The strongest piece in "Arcadia" is Jeff Whetstone's "Two Boys and Water Snake." Straight-forward and unremarkable, the picture features two shirtless boys, brothers possibly, in swim trunks, resting on river stones. A water snake is gently grasped in hands of the older boy. The boy gazes up at the camera carelessly; the snake flexes it's mid-section as it moves toward freedom. The photograph succeeds where Richardson's does not, precisely because it acknowledges Nature's indifference. The snake's will to live is little different from that of his captor. We are all brutes, transcendence and intellect be damned. Where Golding's Lord of the Flies seeks to remind readers of this existential truth, "Two Boys and Water Snake" subtly documents it.


Cheim and Reid: "Soutine and Modern Art" presents gallery visitors with what must be the most impressive non-museum lineup in New York. Every participating artist, whether dead or alive, is of all-star caliber: de Kooning, Pollock, Dubuffet, Guston, Freud, Auerbach, Baselitz, Mitchell, Diebenkorn, Bourgeois and more. Many of these heavy-hitters have only one work included in the exhibition; Soutine, however, has around fifteen paintings hanging. Now, I really like Soutine, but I
was still surprised by my relative disinterest in the other work at Cheim and Reid. I spent a minute with the Pollock, the Dubuffet and the Guston, but even these paintings seemed dull, self-conscious and labored alongside the best of the works by Soutine. Only two works, Alice Neel's "Thanksgiving" and a large painting by Susan Rothenberg (annoyingly, I've forgotten the title), provoked in me anything resembling the pleasure derived from the their Jewish, Franco-Russian elder.

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Alice Neel
Oil on canvas
30 x 34 inches

Soutine is among the finest examples of a painter's painter. That is to say, he uses oil paint in a visceral manner, pushing and spreading it around the canvas with the intensity of El Greco or Rembrandt. There is as much excitement in his paintings' surfaces as there is in the caricatured movement and contours he depicts. My favorite work in the show, "The Rabbit" pictures a dead animal, hung by the rear legs and awaiting butchering. Soutine strips the composition down and yet I
spend five minutes with the painting, stepping in close, scanning from top to bottom, bottom to top, and then stepping away again. It's rare that I have such a physical interaction with so small a painting. Rare and very, very cool.

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Chaim Soutine
Circa 1925
Oil on canvas
30 x 18 1/2 inches

There are other brilliant works at Cheim and Read. Also making my shortlist: "Landscape at Ceret," "Rabbit with Forks," and "Great Pheasant." I coveted all of these, the only sure sign that I'm in the presence of an artwork I truly love.

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Chaim Soutine
"Landscape at Ceret"
Oil on canvas
28 x 41 inches

Finally, "Carcass of Beef" deserves a mention. Looking at it, I remembered a funny, possibly apocryphal story I'd heard about Soutine. Apparently, he actually suspended a cow carcass in his studio and, as he continued to work on the painting, it began to stink, causing the neighbors to confront the painter in protest. After listening to their complaints, Soutine explained that art is more important than health or cleanliness, and that he had no choice but to keep the carcass until the painting was finished. Apparently, several slightly different versions of this tale are passed around - the one on Wikipedia has the police involved - but I'd like to think it's based on real events, and that Soutine was as committed to his painting as he was responsible to his medium.

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Chaim Soutine
"Carcass of Beef"
Circa 1925
Oil on canvas
55-1/4 x 42-3/8 inches

Photo credits: Chad Marshall image ripped from Priska C. Juschka Fine Art; Paul Villinski and Amy Ross images courtesy Morgan Lehman Gallery; Karina Aguilera Skvirsky, Joy Garnett and Jason Middlebrook images courtesy Sarah Meltzer Gallery; Dave Choi and Jeff Lutonsky images ripped from RARE Gallery site; Clare Richardson and Jeff Whetstone images ripped from Yancey Richardson site; all Soutine images ripped from; Neel image ripped from

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Whether or not he has seen "The Day After Tomorrow," any self-respecting environmentalist is familiar with the doomsday scenario posited in Roland Emmerich's 2004 Hollywood blockbuster. But, in case you aren't a card-carrying member of club green or a fan of big-budget summer fare, I'll provide a brief summary. Global warming leads to a stoppage of the thermohaline circulation, also known as the ocean conveyor belt. The halted transfer of warm waters from equatorial regions toward the poles results in dramatic climate change, plunging the northern latitudes into another ice age. In the film, this transition happens unbelievably rapidly; just days after the current stops, the Statue of Liberty is buried in snow and many millions of displaced United States citizens flee south to Mexico in search of a hospitable climate. (1)

Most viewers realize that "The Day After Tomorrow" is over-the-top, but this didn't stem the tide of green endorsements surrounding the film's theatrical release. Al Gore, along with other prominent political and popular figures, trumpeted the movie as an important way to heighten people's awareness of the serious threat posed by global warming. Not long after seeing it, I wrote, "It’s not a triumph of cinema, but it does make the viewer ask some tough questions about how we spend our days here." And so it does, but what I didn't know then was how completely off-base the science behind the scenario was. After all, the thermohaline circulation has been big news in the international media for at least five years, and most articles connect the currents with our relatively temperate global climate. It didn't strike me as alarmist, then, when environmentalists voiced concern about the dangers of a slowed or dead circulation. In fact, this threat seemed to be one of the principal worries of global warming.

Not so, according to Richard Seager's fascinating essay in the July/August issue of American Scientist. Apparently the greens - myself included - have been crying wolf...yet again. This time, though, it's not entirely our fault. The hypothesis was based on accepted fact, after all, but Seager exposes this fact as myth. "The Day After Tomorrow" won't happen because it is not the Gulf Stream that keeps Europe 's climate temperate, as the screenplay suggests and so many of us have long believed. Instead, the trade winds are responsible. That is to say, winds moving from west to east blow in air from the Atlantic, warming Europe in the winter and cooling the pseudo-continent in the summer. The Pacific equivalent is observed on the west coast of the United States. In the case of the southeastern U.S., warm air from the Gulf of Mexico and the warm southwest blows over Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, heating up the summers but keeping winters temperate. As you move northward along the east coast of the U.S., the much cooler, "continental" winds affect climate, keeping summer temperatures relatively cool, but resulting in cold winters.

As Seager explains it:

"The effect of differing heat capacities is augmented by the fact that the Sun's heat is stored within a larger mass in the ocean than on land. The heat reservoir is bigger because, as the Sun's rays are absorbed in the upper several meters of the ocean, the wind mixes that water downward so that, in the end, solar energy heats several tens of meters of water. On land, the absorbed heat of the Sun can only diffuse downward and does not reach deeper than a meter or two during a season. The greater density of soil and rock (which ranges up to three times that of water) cannot make up for this difference in volume of material that the Sun heats and for the difference in heat capacity of water compared with soil or rock.

Because sea-surface temperatures vary less through the seasonal cycle than do land-surface temperatures, any place where the wind blows from off the ocean will have relatively mild winters and cool summers. Both the British Isles and the Pacific Northwest enjoy such "maritime" climates. Central Asia, the northern Great Plains and Canadian Prairies are classic examples of "continental" climates, which do not benefit from this moderating effect and thus experience bitterly cold winters and blazingly hot summers. The northeastern United States and eastern Canada fall somewhere in between. But because they are under the influence of prevailing winds that blow from west to east, their climate is considerably more continental than maritime."

Seager does not, however, dismiss the very real possibility that a stoppage of the thermohaline circulation will result in marked global cooling. He believes this will, in fact, occur, but he argues that global warming itself would serve to mitigate the cooling.

"The germ of truth on which such hype is based is that most atmosphere-ocean models show a slowdown of thermohaline circulation in simulations of the 21st century with the expected rise in greenhouse gases. The conveyor slows because the surface waters of the subpolar North Atlantic warm and because the increased transport of water vapor from the subtropics to the subpolar regions (where it falls as rain and snow) freshens the subpolar North Atlantic and reduces the density of surface waters, which makes it harder for them to sink. These processes could be augmented by the melting of freshwater reserves (glaciers, permafrost and sea ice) around the North Atlantic and Arctic.

But from what specialists have long known, I would expect that any slowdown in thermohaline circulation would have a noticeable but not catastrophic effect on climate. The temperature difference between Europe and Labrador should remain. Temperatures will not drop to ice-age levels, not even to the levels of the Little Ice Age, the relatively cold period that Europe suffered a few centuries ago. The North Atlantic will not freeze over, and English Channel ferries will not have to plow their way through sea ice. A slowdown in thermohaline circulation should bring on a cooling tendency of at most a few degrees across the North Atlantic—one that would most likely be overwhelmed by the warming caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases. This moderating influence is indeed what the climate models show for the 21st century and what has been stated in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Instead of creating catastrophe in the North Atlantic region, a slowdown in thermohaline circulation would serve to mitigate the expected anthropogenic warming!"

Some die-hard greens may be reluctant to consider Seager's conclusions, but they should keep in mind that he is neither a denialist nor a recipient of industry monies. He is a senior research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and even if his ideas are too nuanced for environmental fund raising efforts, it's always best to acknowledge complexity over simple slogans. As I wrote in "Make Me A Mutt," my response to Nicholas Kristof’s March 12, 2005 op-ed piece in the New York Times,

"The Pew Research Center statistic Kristof cites is encouraging; 3/4 of Americans polled agree that environmental protection is vital. With that sizable majority in mind, it may not be necessary to throw tantrums. Reasonable, determined methods will serve the movement well. In environmentalism, like anything else, contradictions abound. Rather than dogmatically championing every device or idea that comes out of the green camp, we should fully consider each and push for thoughtful action as a diplomat would.

As Garret Keizer writes in his recent essay, "Life Everlasting," 'We can dare to walk on this ground of dubious footing, because we are holding one another up as best we can, and because it is we ourselves and not some deterministic logic that writes our civil laws…We can sniff out our options and pick and choose among them, a birthright generally less appreciated by a dogmatist than by a dog.'"

Photo credit: ripped from "The Day After Tomorrow" promo website; 20th Century Fox


(1) The movie should be spared a critique of it's Americentrism, if only because the international coverage of climate change is similarly biased. Most every report, whether published in a newspaper or broadcast on television (not to slight magazines and radio, my favorite media), focuses on the Gulf Stream, the oceanic current that draws water from the Gulf of Mexico to Europe, passing along the eastern coast of the United States as it does so. If this current should cease to be, countless white Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic would be adversely affected. By contrast, the Kuroshio Current, the Pacific equivalent of the Gulf Stream, receives only passing mention, and even then only in regards to California's fair shores. Siberia, Japan, Africa or any other place is of much less concern to the media. Frankly, Roland Emmerich at least included some shots of Japan being pelted by enormous hail chunks.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Notes From Beirut

Zena el-Khalil, an artist friend of mine from graduate school days, lives and works in Beirut, Lebanon. This past week she has been sending regular email updates to family, friends and acquaintances. These missives are now being collected online at Beirut Update.

Whatever your feelings about the region's hellish situation, I recommend a read. Zena's voice vacillates from that of an anxious hysteric to a relatively calm observer. Any perspective or agenda, be it that of the BBC, ABC, NPR, the Jerusalem Post, or Addiyar, will be regarded as biased. Rightly so! Such subjectivity, then, demands vigilance on the part of the participating global citizen. The more sources considered, the more complete the picture, terrible and indistinct though it may still remain.

Let us hope that some sense is made of this mess, and that the killing ends soon. What's more, let us remember that faraway conflicts are, in this day and age, immediately relevant to each and every one of us.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Thinking Like A Mountain?

Erik Reece's eloquent essay, "Death Of A Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Leveling of Appalachia," was included in the April 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine. The piece examines and responds to environmentally devastating coal mining practices in eastern Kentucky. Appropriately enough, I read the work while standing in an abominably long line at the World Expo, in Aichi, Japan, the first World's Fair dedicated to "green" thinking or, as the Japanese organizers dubbed it, "Nature's Wisdom."

Every pavilion in the Aichi Expo was sponsored by either a nation or a corporation (a sign o' the times), and they all forecast a happy, healthy, and sustainable future for humanity and for the planet. Reece's melancholy report provided a sobering counterpoint. A "green future" is tenable only if the necessary changes in technology and lifestyle generate an altogether different kind of green: cash money. As the wife of a Kentucky coal miner asks Reece, "What use are the mountains to us other than coal? When are you going to start thinking about us instead of the environment?" Until alternative energy cheerleaders assuage the concerns of those citizens dependent on income provided by companies like Leslie Resources Inc., one of the mining outfits indicted in Reece's article, America's hard-working, blue-collar folks will remain united in opposition to the relatively privileged mouthpieces of environmentalism.

In "Death of a Mountain," Reece describes the minutes of a Kentucky hearing addressing an Environmental Impact Statement on mountaintop removal, the principal method of tapping into buried coal seams. The local coalfield citizens in attendance, many of them employed by the region's energy companies, reacted against "outsiders" telling them what was best for them and for their land. They even hinted "at a conspiracy afoot by the rest of the state to keep eastern Kentucky poor." Not surprisingly, such vehement antagonism to "greening" measures were not highlighted at the Aichi Expo. Likewise, they receive scant attention in environmental publications, even those produced by more thoughtful organizations,including The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and EarthJustice. It's clear that most environmentalists don't consider the lives of those people displaced by expanding parkland or laid off by companies under siege from environmental legislation. It's little wonder that "Third World" countries and blue-collar workers like the Kentucky miners or the fishermen of the Galapagos islands object to what they consider do-gooder meddling.

In Aichi, I looked up from the magazine and noticed a Japanese teenager in line not far behind me. He was wilting under a sun umbrella, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of the popular American hip-hop duo, Outkast. Fond of connecting seemingly unrelated strands, I thought of the Outkast song, "Return of the G." The lyrics of the song begin, "Every time I try to get peace of mind, niggas try to get a piece of mine, so I gotta grab my piece." The song concisely describes an ugly, myopic cycle, but how much easier for me to characterize it as such when I can afford a plane ticket to Japan and enough over-priced, organic vegetables to fill my canvas grocery sacks?

As a proponent of conservation and environmental protection, I'm necessarily guilty of prioritizing the sustainable long-view over the millions of people vying to put food on their plate. I considered this distressing reality as I entered the air-conditioned Hitachi Pavilion in Aichi to watch an animated feature about the catastrophic - nay, apocalyptic - events brought on by humanity's cavalier approach to natural resource consumption.

A mushroom cap raises a mossy roof

Similar considerations were on my mind this past week, when I traveled to the Monongahela National Forest, in eastern West Virginia, for some camping, hiking, and herping. I know very little about West Virginia, despite having spent several summers at Camp Greenbrier, situated just outside Alderson, in the southern part of the state. During those summers I learned about kayaking, archery, riflery, rock climbing, and the cruel conduct of boys left unsupervised, but I was too young - just nine or ten years of age - to absorb much about the region save the scenic beauty.

Following those camp years, John Denver's song "Country Roads," a particular favorite of my mother, acquired new significance for me. "West Virginia, mountain momma...take me home," Denver sings. Having appreciated the lush splendor of the Appalachian range for myself, Denver's lyrics imparted an aesthetic association as well as the allusion to a mother's buxom embrace. But Denver's paean doesn't only acknowledge West Virginia's awesome landscape. He refers to the state as the "miner's lady...dark and dusty." Even the state's coat of arms, central on the state flag, pictures a miner, pickaxe slung over his shoulder, standing alongside a farmer. But modern miners have largely abandoned the pickaxe in favor of cranes and bulldozers, and evidence of mountain top removal can be seen from the state's highways. Treeless plateaus neighbor intact peaks and, although geologic time will see these scars support trees and other vegetation anew, one can not help but wonder what has become of the once healthy water supply fed by the decapitated mountain streams.

Happily - some might even say selfishly - I was able to avoid despair during my time in Monongahela. Unlike so much of the state, the mountains of the National Forest have been spared extensive surgery. All the same, the park map is peppered with mine sites, demarcated by a pick and shovel. The stream water I drank - after an iodine pill dosing - seemed safe enough (I didn't get sick), but I couldn't quite shake worries about mercury or heavy metal content. Encouragingly, we found plenty of amphibians in the streams, and this suggests that the water is clean.

Salamander hunting near Cheat Mountain Camp

* * * * *

Amphibians: We identified four species of salamander; one example of each is pictured below.

Mountain Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus ochrophaeus)

The Mountain Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus ochrophaeus) was the most common, at least according to our crude census. They seemed to flourish alongside streams, under partially submerged rocks, and on the mountain's face, under woodland detritus - bits of rotten limbs or clumps of moss. The coloration of this species is wide-ranging. Some of the individuals we came upon could have passed for the unrelated redback (Plethodon cinereus), while others appeared more yellow, tan, or even chocolate. Fortunately, one of my companions is an avid herper and he was readily able to distinguish the two species by examining the head and nostrils. When in doubt, I defer to his expertise.

Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Comparatively scarce was the redback salamander and, if I'm recalling accurately, we only discovered this species near woodland vernal ponds. Unfortunately, all my photographs of the species turned out poorly. The models, this one included, didn't much take to posing, forcing me to hurry the shots.

Spotted Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus conanti)

The most unusual discovery of the trip was a Spotted Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus conanti). The species is not known to live in the region - according to field guide range maps, anyway - but, nevertheless, we encountered this individual under a flat rock in an insignificant stream and spent some time confirming the ID. Proof, once again, that nature is always throwing curve balls, particularly in this time of accelerating climate change. The patterned salamander was strikingly colored and appeared almost translucent, it's distinctive markings discernible beneath a superficial layer of clear skin.

Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens)

Just up the hill from the Spotted Dusky discovery, we noticed a Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens) in a puddle of standing water. I was thrilled to see one up close, as it had been the better part of a decade since I last admired this species in person. As it turned out, almost anywhere water pooled in Monongahela, the newts were present. By the time we departed, we'd seen close to a hundred.

Before transitioning into its principally aquatic adulthood, however, the newt spends time on land, as the terrestrial red eft. These attractive little amphibians are perhaps the most charismatic of salamanders. Their stunning outfit is complimented by their not being as retiring as other species. If you find yourself in prime habitat, a keen eye will spot the efts crawling on logs or over leaves, seemingly unperturbed by exposure.

Red-spotted Newt in Red Eft stage (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens)

Tadpoles, like the newts, could be found in almost every pond or puddle. Although we could not ID the species with certainty, we believe most to be the aquatic larvae of the wood frog (Rana sylvatica), though we did notice a few American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) tadpoles. The bullfrog is something of a bully, infamous for out-competing other amphibians and adapting to a wide range of habitats. Biologists designate such a species a trophic generalist. Despite the potential threat to biodiversity, a piece of me admires the pluck of the bullfrog, just as I grudgingly take my hat off to the European starling (Sturnis vulgaris) and the raccoon (Procyon lotor).

Although we saw countless tadpoles, we saw only three adult frogs. One bullfrog, one wood frog, and one upland chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata feriarum). The upland chorus frog is closely related to, but distinct from, the eastern (or New Jersey) chorus frog (Pseudacris ferairum kalmi), with which I am familiar from my childhood on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

A Monongahela stream

Reptiles: Our snake hunting forays proved less successful. We shined flashlights into crevices and carefully examined sun-lit leaf litter in hopes of revealing a timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) or a northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), but neither species graced us with an appearance. I was discouraged, but not surprised. Snake hunting is usually a kettle watching exercise and the animals seem to materialize only once you cease searching.

We found two snakes in Monongahela. Sadly, one of these was a DOR (dead on road) eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), a victim of the automobile. Given the infrequent use of this remote forest road, I decided the unfortunate snake must have accrued some very shitty karma. At least an unidentified land snail was feeding on the dead snake, a welcome reminder of our shared mortality and interdependence.

The identity of the other snake we observed remains in question, but I'm almost certain it was a juvenile eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum). It was a very slender snake, not even pencil-thick, wearing alternating bands of red and white. We noticed the snake on the bottom of a shallow, water-filled ditch. It was attempting to feed on small tadpoles. When we clumsily hurried over for a closer look, it retreated into submerged grasses lining the ditch. After a wait of about fifteen minutes, it emerged from hiding and I attempted to ID it as it zigged and zagged across the bottom. I failed, unfortunately, and we did not see the little reptile again. According to field guides, eastern milk snakes are no stranger to stream bottoms. This knowledge, combined with the distinctive markings, leaves me with little doubt of the species, but, as I say, the verdict it still out.

Snake hunting on the southern exposure

Mammals: I hoped to see a black bear (Ursus americanus) or two, but I had to settle for a smattering of tracks. Because we arrived in Monongahela at the tail end of a long wet spell, the trails and back country were muddy and soft. Although the rain made the first night miserable - we rigged a tarp and pitched the tents after dark, in hard rain - the saturation made spotting animal tracks easy, although in some cases the ground was so wet that fresh prints were already partially obscured. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virgianus) tracks were plentiful, but we saw more deer in the backyards of the houses fringing the National Forest than we did in Monongahela proper. This isn't surprising, as deer are harder to spot in dense forest and, what's more, they thrive in and around human settlement, as so many suburbanites know. Also abundant was the bouncy eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus).

Birds: We were ill-prepared for bird watching. Although we were careful to pack everything needed for a camping trip - right down to the campfire utensil sets - we somehow neglected to include binoculars. I'm not sure how this oversight occurred, but none of us had a pair in hand, making anything beyond guessing difficult, especially since most of Monongahela's bird species are relatively small. In the shadowed forests, identification is all but hopeless without ocular assistance. Fortunately, one of my friends has a competent ear and some species were identified by their call.

Slate-colored juncos (Junco hyemalis) were innumerable. It seems spring comes late to the upper elevations, as the rhododendrons had yet to bloom and, on the final afternoon, we were scolded by two adult juncos as we hustled past a fledgling perched on a low-hanging branch. The prize for Most Handsome Bird goes to the Blackburnian warbler (Dendroica fusca), a fire-headed fellow with a striking voice. We thought we heard this bird's song in the woods, and our supposition was verified when an individual landed just above us, in the branches of a spruce tree.

Most exciting for me, however, was the family of American woodcock (Philohela minor) that we startled into awkward flight. I'm used to the jump, flutter, and glide behavior of the woodcock in the open, flat fields of coastal Virginia, but in the mountain woods of Monongahela, the woodcocks' comical eruption from among the leaves and ferns betrayed the provenance of the species nickname, the timber doodle. The first bird to take off flapped and jerked and reared and leaned as it moved all of twenty feet in the air, before pitching hard and vanishing into a mess of fallen limbs. Realizing we had disturbed a family group, we made our way downhill at a good clip, so as to allow the birds to regroup.

Plenty of common ravens (Corvus corvax) and cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were about, but we saw only one American blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) and one turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), species I certainly expected to see more of. Had we been properly equipped (read: not forgotten the $@*&%!! binoculars), I would have more to report, but I was all too happy to concentrate on reptiles and amphibians, as they are particularly exciting to me.

* * * * *

Rising with dawn's birdsong on the final morning, we quickly packed our gear, lowered the bear bag, and began the five hour drive to Washington, D.C., where I was to catch the Chinatown Bus back to New York City. As we headed east, I slouched in the cramped back seat and admired the mountains of West Virginia, even as I again noted signs of resource extraction. My thoughts returned to Reece's "Death of a Mountain" and I made a mental note to reread it upon returning to New York.

Near the end of the article, Reece quotes Aldo Leopold, the famous American ecologist and conservationist. Leopold bemoaned the fact that "one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." I'm not sure that this is still the case. Those of us who are environmentally conscious do not live alone, even if we do remain surrounded by wounds. More than ever before, "green" sentiments are also popular sentiments; many folks share a penchant for preservation. Leopold would argue, however, that most contemporary environmentalists remain blissfully ignorant of ecological pragmatism. He was a conservationist, not a preservationist, and he understood that protectionism alone rarely leads to long-term sustainability.

Keeping this conservation/preservation dynamic in mind, I think it noteworthy that my companions in the forests of Monongahela were a biology professor and a writer. For our purposes here, the biologist might be characterized as a biological determinist and the writer, as a moral idealist. Though these two characterizations are by no means mutually exclusive, it makes for an interesting contrast in perspective, even though both appreciate the outdoors equally. Rereading "Death of a Mountain," I was surprised to find this divide touched on in the closing paragraphs.
"If our species is to make it through [the 21st] century, the forces of science and technology must be tempered by two other forces - ethics and aesthetics. All ethical philosophies, from Aristotle on down, are based on this ecological principle as stated by Leopold: 'The individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.' And as the cave art at Lascaux makes brilliantly clear, we are a species that has evolved to find beauty in the natural world. This trait serves - or should serve - an evolutionary purpose: we love what we find beautiful, and we do not destroy what we love. A strip job is more than a moral failure; it is a failure of the imagination. It is time we stopped thinking like those who conquer a mountain and started thinking like the mountain itself."
A strip job, as Reece writes, is a moral and imaginative failure, but what does it mean to think like a mountain? It would seem to me that to think like a mountain requires us to abandon morality and imagination, both exceptional human virtues. Is my ambivalence concerning invasive species control an example of mountainous thinking? Moral ambivalence - that is, amorality - is Nature's way. But isn't ambivalence, too, problematic? Is it not cousin to apathy? Humans, at their best, are moral animals; morality necessitates choice and action. Strict environmental controls, then, are moral, pragmatic, and rational, flailing efforts in our human time scale not at all like the geologic contemplation of a mountain. We humans consider a skewed equation and strive to balance it. This calculus comes at some cost. For the sensitive aesthete, slavishly devoted to what Reece calls beauty, the dualistic thinking of a moral pragmatist - right or wrong, good or evil - can seem an ugly, even unnecessary evolutionary holdover. Where, then, can the conscientious among us stand? It's an impossible question, really, more of a koan than a query, but it nags nonetheless.

Something approaching an answer is wrapped up in the lyrics of Denver's "Country Roads," in the fight bruised arms of young boys, in the remarkable persistence of trophic generalists, in the determined antagonism of the coal miner's wife, in the scarred plateaus, and in the slurried bear tracks. Thankfully, when I'm painting, or when I'm appreciating back country settings like Monongahela, I'm reminded that contentment, for me, requires acceptance of a messy, mongrel truth. For my part, it's both necessary and natural to be both an idealistic aesthete and a moralistic number cruncher.

Fungi thrive in the moist, dense forests

Photo credit: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2006