If ecological peril and the wide-ranging effects of climate change amount to a looming existential threat, artists of any degree of awareness can’t help but factor the subject into their work. But artistic responses and moral mileage can vary widely. Some artists deal with the anxiety with a sense of alarm and bold strokes in their work, while others willfully ignore the elephant in the global room, waving the banner of “art for art’s sake” escapism.
And then there are contemporary artists who stake out a fruitful and personal middle ground path, finding poetically expressive roots to trigger eco-activist ends. Such is the case with Madeleine Tonzi, half of the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art’s new two-person show, Entangled: Responding to Environmental Crisis, also featuring the post-graffiti, neo-pre-Columbian art by the Bay Area artist known as GATS (Graffiti Against the System). It can reasonably be said that each artist is earthy, from divergent angles on the meaning of the word.
GATS goes his own way, placing a mysterious recurring masked figure in multiple settings. They span a range of cultural links, from the Mayan world to the skateboard art, painted saw blades, a Meditative cave-like enclosure (“Keep on Trying”) and the code-stamped realm of graffiti. Downstairs in the museum, one piece finds a Tagger in flight, with the dryly quipping text, “I’m not the president of graffiti, but I’m running.”
He pulls away from the Streets and the mythological domain with the most discernible environmental statement of his contribution to the show: The Diptych “Little Blue Dot” peers down from a Cosmic perspective at our insignificant and abused blue dot of a Planetary home.
Tonzi, a Bay Area artist whose studies included a time at Santa Barbara City College, Forges a unique style with suggestions of both hard-edged and soft-textured qualities, a hybrid of reference points and visual elements. A certain Southwestern art palette is blended, seamlessly, with geometric abstraction, conceived with a seemingly sleek sense of poise and order. But hints of improvisational design, not to mention hints of ecological Unrest and fragility, are folded into the contextual frame, as seen in the “Indulgence and a Heatwave” series. In “The Last Cloud,” forms allude to sky and celestial bodies — in neat compositional array, but Cosmic disarray.
Anchoring the main gallery’s installation is a compacted architectural/sculptural piece placed before the large window normally Revealing the campus’ vegetation. The arcing terra-cotta structure triggers associations with California’s Mission system and Southwestern/adobe architecture, but concealed behind this wall is a patch of parched, cracking earth speckled with random objects, natural and otherwise. Sobering realities and portents of environmental destabilization fester beneath the alluring surfaces in her work, serving as image-words to the wise.
Entangled: Responding to Environmental Crisis is on view at the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art through March 25. For more information, call (805) 565-6162 or visit westmont.edu/museum.