Sandy’s wake sweeps through Gallery Bergen exhibition
We’ve all seen the news images, the videos, the photos, the social media postings. Perhaps the most iconic of all New Jersey images from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was that of the roller coaster at Casino Pier in Seaside Heights washed out to sea. But there’s a broader context to Sandy and other natural disasters, and this has to do with people’s consciousness of their relationship to the environment. That’s the theme that Gallery Bergen is exploring through December 4 with a multimedia show, “Sandy: Artists Resp0nd to a Once and Future Superstorm,” at Bergen Community College, Paramus.
Conceived and curated by BCC professors Suzaan Boettger, an art historian, and Marriott Sheldon, a painter, “Sandy: Artists Respond …” presents photos, paintings, prints assemblage and video by eight individuals artists and two collaborative projects involving five more.
The show’s curatorial statement reads, in part:
“As acute dwellers in the world, the artists in this exhibition engaged with (Hurricane Sandy) and the range of issues surrounding it, from material chaos to ecological degradation. The modest scale of some works evokes intimate revelation, while the boldness of others conveys the storm’s engulfing power. Addressing the forces of nature manifested in a once and likely future catastrophe, these artists … apply the forces of culture toward developing social and ecological resiliency.”
Boettger, a nationally recognized authority on contemporary American “environmentalist” art, points out that Sandy was a big wake up call to many within the Mid-Atlantic’s largely urbanized population, who have tended to locate Sandy-scale natural disasters elsewhere, e.g., Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf, tornadoes in Oklahoma, wildfires in the Southwest.
“At the exhibition opening, I said to the guests, ‘No one has asked me ever what we mean by a ‘once and future’ superstorm,’” she recalls. “It seems that people recognize that this is not the last time we’re going to suffer from massive flooding. We’re all vulnerable now. We need to be getting smart about this.”
The show is dominated by photographic imagery, Boettger says, ranging across documentary and visionary points of view, which is “indicative of current artistic practice. Photography has increasing presence in contemporary art, where it used to be the sister medium to the more dominant painting. More people today are working in the photographic medium than in painting, I think.”
A number of works incorporate “found” items from the storm, such as people’s lost photos, silt, street debris and scavenged housing materials. Others are more whimsical, such as Judith Mazzucco’s color digital photo, “The Essentials: Glasses, Light & Perfume, Nov. 5, 2012,” which shows eyeglasses, candles and perfume bottles. Perfume is an essential during a hurricane, one may ask? “Because like many people, (the artist) couldn’t take showers,” Boettger told a NorthJersey.com interviewer.
“The latent issue,” however, “is what can artists do as a response to the enormous problems that have the elements raging, from the geological to the political. Are we simply being frivolous expressers or are we helping to raise consciousness about climate change? That’s the question,” Boettger says.
“A large and increasing number of artists are interested in environmental issues. The hope is that as they bring this subject into museums and galleries, people’s consciousness will change. Some artists are actually cleaning water and air as public art projects.”
Central to the experience of “Sandy: Artists Respond …” is the show’s installation design. The gallery’s walls are painted in monochrome, light gray to black, with the artworks illuminated by pinpoint spotlights. The idea is to suggest the hurricane experience of loss of power, of sitting in the darkness with minimal light sources.
“We’re trying to reach people on the emotional level and prompting them to re-experience Sandy within the sensory context of the gallery,” Boettger said. “At the end, we have a memory wall, where we ask people to write what they may have on their minds, to share their memories. Even small things like this can move people toward taking action in their lives to advance social change.”
A member of BCC’s faculty since 2003, Suzaan Boettger, Ph.D., is the author of two books as well as articles in major art periodicals and anthologies, and exhibition catalogues. She is currently working on book provisionally titled “Climate Changed: Environmentalist Art 1970 - Present,” which she has described as a history of artists' engagement with successive and multiple threats to ecological sustainability.
Participating in “Sandy: Artists Respond … ” are Caitlin Albright of Rutherford; Scott Andresen of Brooklyn and Baton Rouge, La.; Athena Azevedo, Vanessa Gonzalez-Bunster and T.J. Volonis of Brooklyn, collaborating for The Far Rockaway Redevelopment Fund; Greg Brophy of Manhattan and the Jersey Shore; Shari Epstein of Leonardo; Adam Farcus of Baltimore, Md.; Kathyrn Frund of Cheshire, Conn.; Judith Mazzucco of Clarksburg; Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris of Brooklyn and Syracuse, collaborating as The Canary Project; and Rhoda Sidney of Englewood and the Jersey Shore.
Gallery Bergen is located in West Hall of Bergen Community College at 400 Paramus Road, Paramus 07652. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday, or by appointment. Admission is free.