The sounds of the sea wash over the gallery at Pima Community College.
The crash of waves and the whoosh of receding tides repeat endlessly in a looping sound recording, creating a mesmerizing aural backdrop for Coastal Issues: Art, Science and the Sea.
The first show of the season at Louis Carlos Bernal Gallery at PCC West, Coastal Issues is a poetic examination of science and art at the beach. All three of the exhibition artists—Heather Green, Ellen McMahon and Moira Marti Geoffrion—have spent time in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, a distinctive eco-zone where the desert meets the sea.
Harsh and lovely, the shores of the Sea of Cortez inspired Geoffrion's rippling paintings of turtles and birds, McMahon's pristine black-and-white photographs of bones bleached white, and Green's delicate slide show of a scientist's hand-drawn field maps with rolling photo scrolls of barnacles and rocks—as well as that rhythmic ocean soundscape.
But this prized place has its troubles. Cortez has long been known for its astonishingly rich variety of sea life, but overfishing by large commercial interests has depleted its stocks. Development along the arid shore has brought all of the usual woes—from the overuse of local resources to the disturbance of the fragile landscape.
Geoffrion's paintings of birds, turtles and rollicking waves raise the alarm about vanishing creatures of the sea. Her strategy in this series, Anthropocene, is to show the beauty of what we could lose. A recently retired UA art professor, she makes nicely layered oils on panels, with the blues and greens of the ocean shimmering below and beyond the animals.
In "Endangered," two turtles struggle to cross an expanse of sand into the water. In "Altered Flow," the view is from underwater, and a turtle paddles through the waves up to the light. (Sea lions in one painting, "Ocean Layers," bear witness to the time Geoffrion spent along the northern Pacific.) Most of the paintings are assemblages, with small squares arranged around larger panels. The effect is a kaleidoscope of images, filled with the bracing colors of the sea.
McMahon, recently named a full professor of art at the UA, uses digital magic to put disparate objects together in a single image. She got a Fulbright scholarship in 2007 to work in Rocky Point, and her photographs pair human trash with objects washed up from the sea. Sand dollars stand side by side with plastic coffee-cup lids ("Punctuated Equilibriates"); a duck skull is lined up with a plastic box ("Genetic Drifters.")
The combinations are witty, with McMahon uncovering heretofore unnoticed relationships between sea stuff and human junk. In "Phylitic Graduals," the long, pointed skull of a seagull is face to face with a long, pointed dental device. But all of them implicitly critique the human tendency to lay waste to nature.
These gorgeous images owe their beauty in part to McMahon's mastery of complex technologies. The objects are digitally altered so they'll be the same size—a bottle cap becomes the equal of a sea lion skull from Baja ("Heterotic Sympatrics"). Then they're supersized, printed in ivory or white on velvety black, and mounted on aluminum. Six coats of a clear gloss spray made the dark backgrounds even denser—as dark, maybe, as the bottom of the sea.
McMahon calls her series Phenotypes, the scientific word for classification of objects by traits. Her deliberately false pairings raise a cautionary note: We shouldn't necessarily believe everything science tells us.
Heather Green tacks the opposite tack. Her wonderful installation is an homage to science—and to one particular scientist who has spent a lifetime doing the hard work of observation and classification.
A Tucsonan born and bred, Green has made the sea a theme of her burgeoning career. (The young artist, a UA grad who teaches as an adjunct at Pima and the UA, last year won the Buffalo Exchange Arts Award for emerging artist.) Her haunting Ghost Net Project, a series of found-object dioramas that was exhibited at the UA Poetry Center in 2009, sounded the alarm about abandoned fish nets that float in the seas. And her Tide Cycle installation in the Tucson Museum of Art's 2009 Trouble in Paradise show scrutinized the human arrogance that leads us to think we can control nature.
The new work, "Transect," is both meditative and celebratory. It honors Dr. Katrina Mangin, a diligent beach biologist and UA professor who has painstakingly combed the tidal pools at Pelican Point for more than 25 years. As it happens, Mangin's stomping grounds are just up the beach from Green's family cabin in Cholla Bay, north of Rocky Point.
Back in 1984, when Mangin was still a grad student, she and a colleague, Pete Raimondi, discovered a previously unknown hydroid, a creature in the same phylum as jellyfish, corals and anemones. To the naked eye, the hydroid looked like a black dot on the rocks, but Mangin noticed that each one was surrounded by a blank circle, cleared of the barnacles that elsewhere cling to every rock here.
The aggressive new hydroid, it turned out, was killing the competition, and Mangin named it the samurai. (Like the Japanese warrior, she wrote in Natural History Magazine, "It slays barnacles with a swordlike motion of its tentacles.") The samurai was an invader in the Rocky Point tide pools, but Mangin discovered that the local ecology had adapted remarkably well to the invasion. The death of the barnacles opened up territory for other native species: Algae and limpets moved in and thrived.
Such discoveries come about only through years of hard work, and Green observed Mangin on the beach, checking and rechecking the creatures and their rocky battlefields. (She also jumped in to assist.) The artist was struck by the painstaking rhythms of scientific observation, and in her installation, she likens them to rhythms of the sea.
On her soundscape, Mangin's recorded voice loops in at regular intervals, announcing her findings in words that Green has arranged in chant-like syncopation—"Barnacle. Barnacle. Rock."
Green replicated Mangin's stretch of tide pools on three photographic scrolls, each of which is an astonishing 50 meters long. The scrolls are strung on old-fashioned contraptions with wheels and pulleys, and visitors can perambulate down this beach by carefully turning the cranks.
Photographed at different seasons, the images change dramatically. In late winter, the rocks are barren. By springtime, their plants are blooming in pale green and amber. In the autumn, after the summer rains, they erupt in a brilliant explosion of the greenest green.
On a wall, Green arrayed some 40 glass discs from old-fashioned clocks, riffing on a copper ring that Mangin throws over the tide pools to count the average number of critters in random locations. Green painstakingly etched letters and numbers onto the lenses, and their shadows fall on the wall behind them.
A glass case at the front of the installation explicitly honors the art of science. Mangin's tools and notebooks are artfully arranged; one notebook—no doubt just one of scores she's filled over the years—is open for inspection. Careful notes cover the grid of the graph paper, along with Mangin's drawings of the black-dot samurai occupying their conquered circles.
Likewise, her acetate maps star in a slide show, flickering and repeating on a darkened wall. They're a record of Mangin's years spent following the tides and the seasons, and the slides move in rhythm with the sounds of waves spilling out of the speakers overhead.